Pelicans

Having returned to Florida and with Chris’ health improving, we’ve taken the opportunity to visit some of our “old” favorite restaurants. Sitting in the aptly named “Salty Pelican” and gazing out over the water, I realized I could not see any eponymous pelicans perched on the jetty.  Usually one of these incongruous birds stakes its territory atop each of the numerous posts. I was taken aback. Had some climate disaster wiped out the brown pelicans of Florida?  I have to confess I’ve taken a liking to these odd birds.  Bird-watching is challenging when you have compromised sight, but pelicans are a hefty size, weighing about 8 pounds with a wingspan of about 7 feet. Have you ever seen one take off?  I can’t help but smile as they lumber forwards awkwardly gaining speed and finally launch, skimming the ocean until they rise majestically high into the sky, sleek and beautifully streamlined.  And all of a sudden, swift  and clinical as spears, they pierce the ocean, stunning shoals of unsuspecting fish and emerge, their throats full of fish and a couple of gallons of  water. 

Spectacular!

Late in the afternoon, the pelicans line up at the boat slip waiting for the fish store owners to feed them left-overs. One time, our six year old great-nephew was visiting, so we took him to feed the pelicans. With admirable caution he held back as I dangled the first fish. Ouch! There’s a knack to feeding pelicans!  A knack I didn’t have as the hook on its bill clamped down onto my hand!  The ungainly bird deftly turned the fish around so it would slip down its throat in one gulp. Undeterred, it advanced the boat slip begging for more!  So, as you can understand, I have an emotional relationship with our brown pelicans, (there are also a few of the white variety here), and I couldn’t help worrying about their absence. 

 Senior moment!!! 

I remembered I had forgotten, (the prognosis is worse by the way, when you don’t remember your lapses), I had forgotten migration!  Pelicans don’t range over vast distances like many other seabirds, but they do seek out temperate climes.  As I savored my “Pelican Shrimp Wrap,”  (delicious,) the bar-tender assured me that the pelicans would be swooping back and todling on the dock in a matter of days. I can’t wait!

All the same, a hint of anxiety nagged the back of my mind. Was human activity, the climate crisis, the tide of plastic trash, threatening our feathered, long-billed friends?  Turns out, this is not such a bad question to ask. Pelicans, at least in these parts, are numerous now. Yet, at one time they featured on the endangered species list and they are still recognized as an indicator species. If their population undergoes an unexpected decline, it spells bad news for many other species including humans.  In the mid twentieth century, pesticides like DDT seeped into the ecosystem and affected pelicans’ ability to produce calcium. Consequently their egg shells were too brittle to support life and the population plummeted, (not into the ocean to harvest fish, but to a dismal grave).

Nonetheless, prudent regulations saved the pelicans and they were restored to areas where they had become extinct. As an aside, John Grisham, who has a vacation home not too far away, wrote “The Pelican Brief” about the threat to pelicans from oil prospectors in Louisiana. Apparently all those who tried to defend  the brief became endangered, just like the pelicans. 

I could not find much evidence that our local pelican population is dwindling dramatically, but it is a different story in Louisiana. The rise in sea temperatures and the rise of the ocean itself due to the climate emergency is destroying the wetlands that are a key habitat for pelicans and hence their numbers are steeply declining.  Although that’s yet to happen in these parts, birds do get tangled in plastic-coated fishing lines, and autopsies reveal micro-plastics have been ingested. Watch here the sad spectacle of a pelican trying to swallow a plastic cup!  

In the right climate, pelicans can live for thirty years, and the species has survived with little change for 40 million years, (easily beats us).  Who knows what challenges they’ve encountered in all that time – but we do know they’ve bounced back at least once in recent times. Let’s clean up our act and give them a chance to fly free, dive deep, and waddle into the sunrise.

End Notes

Reading

Demon Copperhead Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead
Barbara Kingsolver

Listening

By the End of the Night
Ellie Goulding

Get Better
Alt-J
(Written as a mourning song for Covid victims)

Viewing

The Pelican Brief Trailer
by John Grisham

Poetry

Ark
Simon Armitage

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