Atlantic Warming Again
Nobody counted the pelicans in the mid-1800’s in the back bays from Rehoboth Beach to Chincoteague. People were too busy hunting and fishing to supplement farm meals than to bother with bird watching.
Oysters could be harvested and sold to the cities via the rail spur from Ocean City to Salisbury, and then by boat down the Wicomico to the Chesapeake and on to Baltimore. Fledging resorts were just beginning for the leisure class of the cities and summer foods were grown and hunted to meet the needs of a new cash crop known as tourists.
During the late 1890’s and the early decade of the 20th century a fashion trend swept the denizens of the rich and newly arisen middle class. Hats with feathers became the vogue. Some of the head wear consisted of a whole bird. Others were intricately crafted works of art. Every shop from coast to coast carried these hats to meet the craze.
Fishermen also perceived these birds as competition for fish. Rookeries, eggs and other nesting areas were systematically destroyed.
Hundreds of thousands – and perchance millions – of shore birds were slaughtered to meet the demand. Even sea gull feathers were employed. Brown and white pelicans were not immune from the fray. Hunters sold the bird clothing for upwards of $80 per pound and to say the gunners of the back bays did not participate in this lucrative enterprise would be naïve.
As the bird population rapidly declined, one must surmise, because of cause and effect, that the pelicans of the area also were markedly reduced. One must assume, and that is a big assumption, that the pelicans nested and thrived here in the first place.
Through the efforts of the newly created Audubon Society, public opinion slowly began to change to outrage toward the plumage hunters and the wholesale destruction of the shore birds. President Theodore Roosevelt established a federal bird reservation, the forerunner of the National Wildlife Refuge Centers, on Pelican Island in Florida. The first battles between environmentalists and profit mongers began.
A recorded sighting, in the bird magazine Auk, reported a brown pelican as far north as Narraganssett, (sic) Rhode Island, on June 21, 1927. The observer surmises the bird became entangled in a major storm that struck Cape Hatteras on June 19 and roared up the coast and was well off of Cape Cod on June 21.
Another sighting occurred in Rehoboth Beach and was also reported by Auk magazine:
From there the reported sightings seem to end. The depression, which halted the leisure activities of the middle class, and the war years possibly combined to reduce the activities of the observers.
The next event that dramatically reduced the population of the brown pelican was DDT.
Chemically combined by Paul Mueller in 1939, the stuff was, at first, wonderful. It could delouse the soldiers during the war. Mosquitoes, and subsequently malaria, became non-existent in some areas. I can recall as a kid staying in a cottage on Hitchens Avenue and awaiting the mosquito truck that had a huge fan on it blowing the insecticide, knocking down the swarms. It was applied to crops, which produced unheard of yields. In 1959 over 80 million pounds were joyfully applied. Mr. Muller won the Nobel Prize for his invention in 1948.
The first warnings about DDT came from Rachel Carson in her book “Silent Spring” in 1962. She stated non-target organisms, birds and fish, were being harmed by the buildup of pesticides, especially DDT. The chemical combined with the egg shells and caused them to break.
Environmental awareness became part of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, when it was affirmed falcons had been eliminated from the east coast; eagles and osprey were threatened and the brown pelican was near extinction. Finally, in 1973, the government banned the use of DDT altogether.
The recovery of the predator birds has been remarkable. Populations of brown pelicans along the east coast rebound exponentially until they were removed from the endangered species list. Populations in North Carolina have been re-established but not to their pre-DDT levels.
In 1987, brown pelican nests were observed in the back bays of both Maryland and Virginia. They continued to nest in the area until 1996 and 1997 when no nests were observed. More nests were established and Virginia reported 500 breeding pairs.
Are they moving north because of increased warming, or because the numbers have rebounded from the DDT, thus forcing nesting pairs northward? Unfortunately, the data from our recording buoy, old reliable 44009, was screwed up for 1985, 1986 and 1987. However, the pelican population did increase as the temperature of the Atlantic increased.
When in 1996 and 1997 there were no nestings observed, the temperature of the Atlantic decreased.
Finally, except for those two years, the brown pelican has been observed nesting through 2006, which correlates with the increased water temperature. Many reports of brown pelicans have been observed during abnormally warm winter of 2006 and early 2007.
The brown pelicans, coupled with the temperature data from buoy 44009, could be another indication of global warming affecting northern Worcester County. Although the data from the buoy needs intensive examination, these two indicators provide a basis for further study.
The Brown Pelican stands about four feet tall, weighs 8-10 pounds with a brown and grey body and white head. A long grey bill with a flap of skin to holds the catch. Immature pelicans are all brown. The wing span usually measures between six and seven feet. The pelicans are social animals, congregating together with males, females and juveniles. They usually fly low, just past the breakers, in single file flapping their wings in unison.
On the east coast, the bird nests from Maryland to Venezuela and Brazil and along the Gulf Coast. It usually nests on small inaccessible coastal islands away from fox and other predators. Blind and featherless, two or three chicks emerge in April and May. The nests can be small depressions with a rim of soil built up four to 10 inches. It may be layered with a few feathers. Both parents care for the fledglings with the males usually bringing the materials while the females construct. Chicks verbalize with the parents while inside the egg forming a bond. Upon hatching, the chicks know Mom and Dad through these communications. The oldest known pelican was 19 years.
The bird eats by plunging from 30 feet or greater into the water, mouth open, wings partly folded and scoops up the fish allowing the water to drain from the sides. The meal is then carried in the esophagus or gullet. The impact of the hit stuns the fish, but air sacs cushion the brain and also provide floatation to return to the surface after the dive. The birds require about four pounds of food per day and include menhaden, herring, sheepshead, pigfish, mullet, grass minnows, top minnows, and silversides.
I would like to thank the many individuals at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the National Buoy Data Center in Mississippi, local commercial and recreational fishermen, and people at the Assateague Island National Seashore. Special thanks to my brother Jeff McLaughlin and friend Mike Lewis who checked and rechecked the data for me. I am also indebted to life long friend Dr. Harry Womack of Salisbury University. The errors and omissions are my own and I take full responsibility for them. Tom McLaughlin
(Editor’s Note! The above description of the brown pelican came from numerous sources, including by not limited to Natureworks (nhptv.org), Animal Diversity Web (animaldiversity.ummz.edu) Cornell Lab of Ornithology (birds.cornell.edu), and from conversations with people in the DNR.)