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One of America’s most charismatic coastal birds is thriving again.
Until the 1930s tens of thousands of brown pelicans nested along Louisiana’s southern shores. But by 1963 the only brown pelican to be found there was the one on the state flag. The long-billed, fish-eating species was rapidly disappearing throughout its range on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, a victim, it turned out, of the pesticide DDT. Since then the bird has bounced back across the nation, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in November to remove it from the endangered-species list.
“It’s cause for celebration,” says Bob Benson, director of Audubon Texas, whose Texas Coastal Stewardship program, with conservation partners, helped boost brown pelican numbers from 12 in the early 1970s to 12,000 today on the 80 islands it manages. “Brown pelicans are large, showy, unique birds that are part of the culture of the Texas coast,” he says.
Brown pelicans were first declared endangered in 1970. Biologists and conservationists credit the recovery largely to the federal ban on DDT two years later. Widespread use of the pesticide thinned birds’ eggshells, impairing their ability to reproduce. In 1985 the FWS delisted pelican populations along the Atlantic Coast and in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The action in November de-listed the remaining Pacific and Gulf Coast populations.
Numbers have risen in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and California for the past four decades, Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count shows. But the species still faces grave dangers. “Hurricanes Katrina and Rita really pounded the Texas and Louisiana coasts, and nest numbers went down, especially in hard-hit nesting habitat east of the Mississippi River,” says Deborah Fuller, Louisiana FWS endangered-species coordinator. Armed with Congressional funding, the agency helped launch a translocation project, moving birds to a new colony west of the river—an endeavor that echoes the restoration plan undertaken in the 1980s to capture more than 1,200 pelicans in Florida and release them in Louisiana. “We didn’t want to have all of our brown pelican eggs in one basket, so to speak,” says Fuller. “They’re doing great. By 2007 we were back to where we had been, with over 24,000 fledglings.” But, she adds, future floods during nesting season—which might happen more frequently as temperatures rise—could hurt the birds.
“All the threats haven’t disappeared,” says University of California, Davis, biologist Daniel Anderson, who, with his colleague Frank Gress, helped sculpt the FWS brown pelican recovery plan. “The threats that pelicans face are the threats that most seabirds face. Disturbance at nesting colonies, loss of good night roosting habitat, pollution, oil spills. And the overall decline of the marine environment.”
Weighty safeguards remain in place, even with the lifting of endangered-species protections. “It isn’t like it’s gone off the list and it’s just left out there hanging,” says Anderson. The FWS will monitor populations, and can relist the species if it’s once again at risk of extinction. And additional laws, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act, will continue to protect the brown pelican, its nests, and its eggs.
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