Back in early March I enjoyed a trip to coastal South Carolina, visiting locations near Pawleys Island such as Huntington Beach State Park, Myrtle Beach State Park and Brookgreen Gardens.
During my six-day stay in the South Carolina Low Country, I observed 95 species of birds, including several that should be making their spring return to our region any day now. I saw blue-gray gnatcatchers, yellow-throated warblers and a few shorebirds, including a greater yellowlegs. All of these birds usually migrate through Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia in April and early May.
I also saw some coastal specialties that don’t usually come close to my landlocked home state of Tennessee, including anhinga, tricolored heron and brown pelican.
The brown pelican is the smallest of the world’s eight species of pelicans, which are grouped in the family Pelecanidae. Saying that a brown pelican is small, however, is a relative term. The brown pelican is about half the size of the related white pelican.
The brown pelican lives on both coasts, from around Seattle, Washington, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, southward to the tropics. This pelican also lives along the Gulf Coast, as well as ranging south as far as the mouth of the Amazon River in South America.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s website, there are two geographically and genetically distinct regional populations, or subspecies, of brown pelican that occur in North America. They are the California brown pelican, ranging from California to Chile, and the eastern brown pelican, which occurs along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as the Caribbean and the Central and South American coasts.
Pelicans have been documented living about 30 years in the wild, but the average age may be much less due to factors such as predation, disease and starvation. Many young pelicans, unskilled at catching fish, sadly do not reach adulthood.
DDT, which negatively affected breeding for birds such as bald eagle, osprey and peregrine falcon, also had a detrimental impact on the brown pelican. According to their website, in 1970, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as endangered. The listing was possible through a law that had been passed before 1973’s Endangered Species Act. A recovery plan was published in 1983. In November 2009, the pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List, becoming another success story akin to that of the bald eagle.
Visitors to beaches along the Atlantic Coast have probably seen the impressive flight of brown pelicans in a single file formation of birds gliding only a few feet above the surf. The span of the wings can reach seven feet six inches. Seen near dusk, an observer could be forgiven a flight of fancy that allows these pelicans and their graceful flying formations to be compared to the long-extinct flying reptiles, the pterosaurs.
At a distance, the birds can readily be described as majestic and even graceful. On closer inspection, some different adjectives come into play to describe the brown pelican. At close quarters, a brown pelican is an ungainly, almost ugly bird. Pelicans have long necks and bills, and on land, they shuffle awkwardly. Young bird are drab brown and gray, often looking much more disheveled than adult birds.
According to the website All About Birds, the brown pelican feeds mostly on small fish such as menhaden, mullet, anchovies, herring, and sailfin mollies. These large birds may plunge from 65 feet above the surface of the water to capture fish in their famous throat pouch. In addition to fish, a pelican can take up to 2.6 gallons of water into its pouch with every dive. The water gets expelled, leaving behind the fish.
When not feeding, pelicans will rest on sandbars, pilings and rock jetties. These “loafing” spots are important places for pelicans to rest and recuperate after the rigors of diving and fishing for their fish meals.
The closest avian relatives of the pelicans are a couple of oddball birds known as the shoebill and hamerkop. The world’s other species of pelicans include Peruvian pelican, great white pelican, Australian pelican, American white pelican, pink-backed pelican, Dalmatian pelican and spot-billed pelican.
One state — Louisiana — has even made the brown pelican its official state bird. Most state birds are songbirds. The brown pelican is one of the exceptions, along with such birds as Minnesota’s common loon and the wild turkey, which has been adopted by Massachusetts.
On a handful of occasions, brown pelicans have made brief appearances in the region, usually generating a great deal of excitement among birders. White pelicans are also rare visitors, but they make slightly more stops in the region than their smaller relative. For instance, a white pelican spent a few days at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol around Thanksgiving in 2015. To increase your odds of observing a brown pelican in the wild, it will be much more productive to simply spend a few days along the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia or Florida.
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