Endangered Brown Pelicans face uncertain future

Photo of Brown Pelican with fish hook embedded in bill.
Brown pelican caught with fish hook in its beak. (Photo: IBR)

By Karen Benzel

On Christmas Eve 2002, pelicans were the top story on all the Los Angeles television stations. Seven endangered California Brown Pelicans were found on San Pedro’s Cabrillo Beach, dead or dying from what appeared to be gunshot wounds. One also had its right wing broken in two.

Over the next two weeks, seven more pelicans were brought to our Los Angeles wildlife center, all with their right wings broken. None survived and all were of breeding age. This was a tragic loss for a species that survived for 40 million years, yet could barely hang on for the last l00. Pelicans have endured one obstacle after another in their fight to survive the past century. Untold numbers die from oil spills and fishing line entanglement.

From plume hunters in the 1800’s to domoic acid and botulism in the past decade, pelicans have endured one battle after another.

Exploitation and slaughter for feathers

Just like today, when someone feels fashionable wearing a fur coat made from wild animals cruelly killed in traps, so it was with hats in the 19th century. Large elaborate hats were the “must have” fashion item of that era, and almost all had plumes, feathers, real birds nests, bird wings and even small dead birds adorning them. Birds with beautiful long plumes, especially wading birds like herons and egrets, were slaughtered by the millions to supply the millinery industry.

By 1903, the price of feathers had risen to $80 an ounce, and at far more than the price of gold, it became apparent that nature could no longer sustain itself to supply fashion, or the dinner table. With no laws in place to protect wildlife, whether it was for feathers or food, hundreds of millions of birds were killed by plume and market hunters. The passenger pigeon, whose flocks literally darkened the sky, became extinct, as did Carolina parakeets, eskimo curlews and Labrador ducks. Pelicans were not spared, and they too almost became extinct for their feathers.

Inspired by Pelicans: Nation’s first wildlife refuge

On March 14, 1903, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was created by presidential decree. Its creation didn’t come easily; a battle of epic proportions between conservationists and plume hunters had preceded it.

When President Teddy Roosevelt learned pelicans were being killed for their feathers, he found it despicable. Yet, the idea of refuge and sanctuary for birds, where they were protected from market hunters and plume hunters was virtually unheard of. Realizing that if something wasn’t done on a federal level, there would be no wildlife left, President Roosevelt acted to protect the last remaining area vital to the survival of the pelicans, Pelican Island in Florida. It was only five acres in size, but it was the beginning of our National Wildlife Refuge System, which today totals over 95 million acres.

The first and oldest wildlife sanctuary is the Lake Merritt Refuge in Oakland, California. It was declared a refuge from hunters in 1870, and remained the only declared public wildlife refuge until 1903.

Fortunately, attitudes where changing. As Americans became more aware, the pendulum began to slowly swing from unregulated destruction to greater awareness of the need for laws to protect wildlife and the areas they inhabited.

The Audubon Society wasn’t started by John Audubon but by a group of women in Massachusetts who refused to buy or wear hats and clothing decorated birds and their feathers. By 1899, 15 other states had formed Audubon societies. However, it would take another two decades before pelicans would have federal protection everywhere, not just on Pelican Island and more setbacks and challenges to their existence lay ahead.

Egg Hunters decimate entire colonies of birds

As the population of the United States grew, pollution and loss of habitat would challenge all species. The burgeoning population and rapid influx of immigrants also needed to be fed. Massive factory farming didn’t exist yet, so eggs were not cheap and readily available like they are today, unless you stole them from wild birds.

When egg hunters discovered millions of seabirds breeding on islands just off the coast of San Francisco, an industry was started. The Farralon Egg Company set a record when they removed over 120,000 murre eggs within a two-day period. Birds like pelicans and murres, who nested in large colonies, were targets of the egg hunters. With the going price for fresh eggs reaching two dollars apiece, greed outweighed conservation and many bird species nearly became extinct due to this practice.

Pelicans slaughtered by fisherman

During the First World War canned sardines were a cheap nutritious food for the troops and another industry was formed, canneries and fish reduction plants, largely based in Monterey, California. 25 tons of sardines would be caught in a single night. So many sardines were harvested that other uses needed to be found for them; most became chicken and pig feed and fertilizer before the industry totally collapsed.

For pelicans along the coast of California, sardines were necessary to live. As the sardines disappeared a life and death struggle ensued between the California’s brown pelicans and fishermen, even though pelicans eat fish that most people do not put on their table, herring, anchovy and sardines.

With no laws protecting them, fisherman unjustifiably slaughtered pelicans by the thousands, and not just in Monterey.

Pelicans get some protection with the Migratory Bird Act

Although many people are not aware of this federal law, in 1916, the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) adopted a uniform system of protection for certain species of birds which migrated between the United States and Canada and on July 3, 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed to implement the earlier treaty. The law made the killing, capture, possession or sale, import, export or transportation of any migratory birds, parts of birds, nests or eggs illegal, unless permitted by regulation.

In 1936 the treaty included the United States and Mexico, in 1972 the United States and Japan, and in 1976 the United States and the former USSR.

Pelicans finally had federal protection but laws are only as good as their enforcement. What lay ahead was the worst killer the pelicans had ever encountered, it was invisible, and the pelicans would help sound the alarm about its power to cause sickness and death.

The Elixir of Death: DDT

In 1939, a Swiss chemist discovered the “atomic bomb” of pesticides, DDT. Cheap and easy to produce, it was initially used in WWII to clear South Pacific islands of malaria-causing insects for U.S. troops.

The farming industry quickly discovered that unlike most pesticides, whose effectiveness is limited to destroying one or two types of insects, DDT was capable of killing hundreds of different kinds at once.

For more than 20 years DDT was the most widely used insecticide in the world; at one point the United States was producing 220 million pounds of DDT a year.

Brown Pelicans nearly went extinct due to DDT, along with eagles and other raptors. In the 1960’s biologists discovered the only remaining colony of California brown pelicans nesting on the Anacapa Islands (off Southern California) weren’t successfully reproducing.

Pelicans use their highly vascular feet to incubate their eggs, but their eggshells were paper-thin and the eggs were crushed under the weight of the adults. In 1969, 750 nests were found, but only 4 chicks were born. The scientists found high concentrations of DDT in the Brown Pelicans’ blood. DDT had moved up the food chain, a process called bio magnification, and the animals highest on the chain, received the highest concentration of DDT.

DDT wasn’t banned until a brave woman named Rachel Carson, wrote Silent Spring, which was published in 1962 and quickly rocketed to the New York Times best-seller list. Two years later, Rachel Carson died of breast cancer, but the fervor generated by her meticulously written book, in which she labeled pesticides “elixirs of death,” would lead to a nationwide ban on DDT in 1972. Because DDT can take up to 15 years to break down in the environment, its effects remained well into the next decade.

The population of brown pelican colonies off Southern California shrank by more than 90 percent during the late 1960s. In 1970, there were 550 nests and only one chick survived; the California Brown Pelican was put on the federal Endangered Species list.

It was later discovered that from 1947 to 1983, the Montrose Chemical Corporation plant in Los Angeles had discharged DDT laden wastewater into the city’s sewers, which emptied into the ocean. There it was absorbed and stored in the tissues of anchovies and other fish eaten by pelicans.

Because DDT is so long lived, the effects lasted well beyond the time when the discharge stopped. In 1996 the EPA began a Superfund investigation off the coast of Palos Verdes, where the discharge occurred. In 2000, the state and federal governments settled the final remaining legal claims brought in 1990 against the Montrose et al.

The effects of DDT diminish with time, and the Endangered California Brown Pelicans attempted a comeback. But in the late 20th century, all seabirds along California’s coast were negatively impacted by threats to their survival caused by human impact; oil pollution and oil spills, contaminants and pollution like plastics, fishing lines and nets, over-fishing, gill nets, disturbance at breeding colonies, loss of nesting habitats, illegal depredation by humans, agricultural, pesticide and sewer runoff. The 21st century has brought new threats like domoic acid poisoning, starvation of juveniles that can’t find fish and botulism poisoning.

Life was not easy and since the California Brown Pelican was put on the State’s endangered list in 1971, it has only recovered to an estimated population of 8,000 breeding pairs.

How Bird Rescue Helps

Over the years, Bird Rescue has treated thousands of Pelicans at its two California bird centers. Thanks to contributions and foundation grants, our two wildlife centers each have 100-foot pelican aviaries to help these majestic birds recuperate from injuries, sickness and stress.

See: Giving Circles: Become a Pelican Partner