Oil Spill Wildlife Spotlight: Brown Pelican

Brown pelican. Credit: Rebecca Field

In a widely celebrated conservation victory, the Interior Department removed the brown pelican from the Endangered Species List in November. Now, the oil spill gushing millions of gallons of crude in the Gulf of Mexico might undermine its recovery.

The bird was first listed in 1970 after it was nearly wiped out by the pesticide DDT. Since then, a DDT ban and conservation efforts from individuals all the way up to states have helped the species recover. Today, more than 600,000 brown pelicans are found across Florida and the Gulf and Pacific Coasts, as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America.
“After being hunted for its feathers, facing devastating effects from the pesticide DDT and suffering from widespread coastal habitat loss, the pelican has made a remarkable recovery,’ Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland said when the bird was deslisted. “We once again see healthy flocks of pelicans in the air over our shores.”
The spill poses particular risks to brown pelicans.  If the birds dive into oil-slicked waters while foraging, their feathers could become saturated, causing them to suffer from hypothermia or even drown.

Thousands of brown pelicans and shorebirds are currently nesting at Breton National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Louisiana, where booms have been deployed to deflect oil. Photo: USFWS

If they pick up oil and are still able to fly, they might carry crude back to their nests, contaminating them. Or, they could eat—and feed to their young—fish tainted by the pollution.
And because of their relatively low reproductive rate, any disruption to their breeding cycle could have serious effects on the population. Brown pelicans take three to five years to fully mature.

Louisiana State Wildlife Response Team's Erica Miller cleans an oiled pelican. May 15. Photo: US Navy
So far, rescuers have found three oiled brown pelicans alive, and two dead. The oil has been slow to hit the shore, but today there were reports of it washing up at Audubon’s Rainey Sanctuary in southwestern Louisiana. Rainey Sanctuary, Created in 1926, it’s the organization’s oldest sanctuary and one of its most ecologically significant, covering more than 20,000 acres of coastal brackish and intermediate marsh habitats along Vermilion Bay.
“It looks like the whole Louisiana coast out to the Florida Panhandle will be getting tarballs,” says Greg Butcher, Audubon’s director of bird conservation. “It’s still in the middle of pelican nesting season, and if those come ashore, it’s going to be bad for the young.”
When it comes to the long-term impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the species, “It’s a huge unknown,” says Butcher. “We have no idea how pervasive the spill will be, what the effect will be on mortality or if it will disrupt breeding.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service will take all of those factors into account when it conducts its annual review of the bird’s status. Currently, the agency is not considering re-listing the brown pelican.

Click here to see a slide show of wading birds photographed by Rosalie Winard.

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