The Pelican In Peril

October 2017

A wonderful bird is the pelican, His beak will hold more than his belican. He can take in his beak Food enough for a week, But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

Now, however, one variety of the “wonderful bird,” the brown pelican, a strictly coastal species, is in serious trouble; for his beakful of marine fish also includes a good dose of DOT. The situation is sadlyfamiliar. Manmade pollutants—chiefly organochlorine insecticides—are passed along through the insect-to-fish-to-bird food cycle. And thus have such insecticides already brought the eagle, the osprey, and the peregrine falcon perilously near extinction. For all of them DDT has meant low reproductive rates, sterile eggs, eggs with shells too fragile to support the incubating bird, and for the eagle eggs with no shells at all. In California the pelican’s nesting season this year was a total failure—one thousand nests, no young. Scientists investigating a rookery on Anacapa Island in Santa Barbara Channel reported shells “spongy in texture … portions of the shells were flaking, exposing the membrane.” But at least the California scientists are aware of what is happening. It was only a few years ago that Louisiana suddenly discovered it could no longer call itself the Pelican State: not a single nesting bird was to be found where once a population of a hundred thousand had thrived. Similarly, Texas no longer has nesting pelicans; the South Carolina population has dropped to a fifth of the si/e it was ten years ago. For reasons not understood, Florida is the one area where the brown pelican seems to be holding his own, and this year Pelican Island, which was set aside by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 as the first national wildlife refuge, produced a healthy crop of young.