Oh, To Be a Pelican!
By Toni Lance
When the water is clear, the fish can see you and on a rough day, you can't see them. There are times when you see no fish at all. There are the storms, when you either stay tucked on the ground or soar with the high breeze that might take you far from home. And then there are those days, when the wind is perfect and you and your friends are drafting each other low over the water and you spot the ideal fishing ground. The day is spent flying high, circling, diving, crashing, splashing, stuffing yourself with fresh fish, sunning, preening, and relaxing. Oh to be a pelican.
The Brown pelican is the smallest of the eight species of pelicans. With a wingspan of 6-8 feet, it is the only pelican that dives for fish from the air. The most distinguishing feature of the pelican is its long beak with a hooked tip and a huge gular or pouch. The Brown pelican weighs 6-12lbs and needs to consume about 4lbs of fish a day. With acute eyesight, the pelican dives for medium-sized bait fish, locally in the Virgin Islands called sprat or fry. The birds acrobatically dive from as high as 60 feet above the water to scoop up fish and as much as 30 gallons of water into their gular. As they lift their heads out of the water, the flexible pouch drains and they throw their head back to swallow the catch.
The juvenile pelican is a dusty brown color all over with a white belly. The bill is gray brown. The bird becomes sexually mature at 3-4 years and his plumage begins to change. The mature pelican has a black-colored belly and a silvercolored back. The adults have a white and yellow head in the winter. During breeding season in the summer, the neck becomes reddish-brown, the eyes change from brown to blue and the bill becomes partly orange to attract a mate. The males are slightly larger with a longer bill, but otherwise, the colors are the same. The pelicans nest in colonies laying 2-4 eggs. Locally, they nest on small, undeveloped islands in tropical dry vegetation. On St. Croix they annually nest on the remote east cliffs of Buck Island.
Brown pelicans can live 30-40 years. It is a myth that they go blind and die from repetitive diving. But they could go blind from Botulism or eating rotten or poisonous fish. This is one of the many threats to the birds. Others include serious tears to the gular from fishing hooks, becoming snared and tangled in abandoned fishing line, flying into overhead wires, human encroachment of nesting sites and, of course, OIL.
The Brown pelican was declared endangered in 1970 after almost plummeting to the brink of extinction after populations were decimated by the use of the pesticide DDT. Just last fall in November of 2009, they were removed from the Federal Endangered Species list. It is hoped that the Gulf oil spill does not cause it to go back on the list. The Brown pelican is prevalent along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. Being the Louisiana State bird, it is in large numbers along the Gulf, presently breeding and nesting in Florida to Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. We are very lucky in the Virgin Islands to be able to enjoy this prehistoric looking, yet remarkable bird. It is everyone's delight to see groups of pelicans at sunset traveling single file low over the water surface. We take for granted the thrilling site of pelicans one after another tucking their wings and diving straight into the sea. Personally, I could spend hours enjoying a pelican sitting on a post, preening and fluffing his feathers or with his head turned backwards resting.
What can you do to help the Brown pelican? If you are fishing and a pelican gets caught on your fish hook, DO NOT CUT THE LINE. Reel in the bird carefully and take out the hook or call a wildlife expert for help. If you see an injured pelican in the Virgin Islands, call the local animal shelter or Fish and Wildlife or The St. Croix Avian Sanctuary bird rehab center 340- 773-1839. And if you want to help the Brown pelican in the Gulf, give to Tristate Bird Rescue or IBRRC (International Bird Rescue and Rehabilitation Center). They are on the front lines in trying to save the oiled pelicans.