Twice these birds have been near extinction but have fought their way back to healthy numbers

It happens more often then you might think. A heavy snowfall, cold temperatures, and boredom unite to create (in me) a giant case of writer’s block. 

The only cure for that obscene mixture is to grab one of my scientific journals and check out the latest research on some interesting critter.

For instance, did you know that the brown pelican was driven to the brink of extinction — twice! It seems that, back in the late 19th century real feathers were the only thing worthy of adorning lady’s hats and clothing. And exotic birds, from egrets and herons to eagles, storks and pelicans, were the targets of choice. Nothing in Audubon’s world was safe from the market hunter’s sights. The slaughter was utterly horrendous, with whole rookeries being wiped out in a single night’s massacre.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, along with strong enforcement efforts, helped to stop that situation, and the birds began a slow but steady recovery. But then came another more insidious threat in the form of insecticide poisons including or similar to DDT. Eagles and other fish-eating birds were hardest hit. But in 1972 those poisons were outlawed. The following year the Endangered Species Act was passed. And dozens of bird species, including the brown pelican, once again were given the opportunity to survive and thrive.

And lest we forget, on March 14, 1903, Pelican Island in Florida was declared to be the first of a long list of national wildlife refuges by President Theodore Roosevelt. During 1905 and again in 1908, game wardens protecting the birds on that and other nearby nesting islands were killed by feather poachers. And the feather war was on, but soon died out as the fashions changed.

Today the brown pelican can be found along coastal regions from New York to the Texas Mexican border and south from there along the Mexican, Central and South American coasts. It is also found along the Pacific coasts in many areas. Both males and females assist in the egg brooding chores by standing on the eggs. The heat from their feet does the incubation work.

Their population continues to increase. This species has become so numerous that it was delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2009. And even though it is the smallest of the eight pelican species, it is still a large bird. It sports a wingspan in excess of six feet, and its overall length is a shade over four feet (average), including its overly long bill.

Oh, and if you might be wondering about the diet of these birds, wonder no more. They eat primarily small schooling fish. But their fishing method is somewhat unique. They dive from heights of 60 feet or more, stunning the small fish and allowing the pelicans to scoop some of them up in their pouch along with about two and a half gallons of water.

But just because minnows are inside the bird’s pouch does not yet mean dinner is served. Gulls often come a calling to steal some small fish right out of the pouch. It is not uncommon to see a gull sitting on a pelican’s head while stealing food right out of its mouth.

There are two species of pelicans in North America, the brown and the white. The whites are primarily found on fresh water rivers and lakes, while the browns are more coastal and usually fish in salt or brackish water. And unlike many human couples, brown pelicans share parental duties. The male brings nesting materials and the female arranges them to her liking.

Brown pelicans are truly unique birds in many different ways. And now their population is both adequate and diversely spread, all but assuring their continued species expansion. As long as humans leave them alone to do their own thing we can expect to see them in impressive numbers in the future.

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Here is a conundrum of sorts for which there may not be any clear-cut answers. Research has shown that large deer populations, which have long been the bane of many humans including insurance companies and automobile drivers, is also hurting some songbird species. Yes, more deer may directly result in fewer songbirds with certain nesting requirements.

It appears that some bird species need short vegetation for their nesting and foraging requirements. Much of that low-lying vegetation is prime fodder for deer. But too many deer feeding on those grasses and tender spring shoots can cause havoc for nesting birds.

This study is based on scientific evidence, not just theory. Two areas were researched, extending from coastal Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley. And multiple years of data were collected. 

There was a substantial over-population of deer in the coastal Virginia research area and a well-regulated herd in the Shenandoah area. And the research team found far fewer songbird species, such as hooded warblers, white-eyed vireos and the prairie warbler, where they found increases in the number of deer. 

This is actually the third similar study of this kind, and all three have clearly indicated the same general data. More deer (overpopulated) in any given area will adversely impact the ground-nesting songbirds in that area. And, since different songbird species were studied in each of these projects and every studied species was directly impacted by the deer, it can be safely deduced that all species of ground-nesting birds are or will be adversely impacted if the deer population is permitted to increase much beyond the accepted carrying capacity.

Is there any “solution” to this problem? Probably not. Areas with too many deer most often got that way due to changing conditions within the human community. Suburban sprawl combined with changing human attitudes toward deer harvesting is probably the most common reason for ground-nesting songbird decline. 

The likelihood of that situation changing is slim. Chances are that nothing short of a major catastrophe of some kind will change existing human nature in any way.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoor Writer. Contact him at lisenbee@frontiernet.net.