Coast plays prominent role in saving endangered brown pelicans

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS

They glide so gracefully over the Mississippi Sound and their landings look smooth and effortless.  Even on a cold winter’s day, you can catch them plunging for fish or perching with their friends on a pier.  One large flock likes to hang out at the Ocean Springs Harbor.

“When flying, they’re the most majestic beautiful birds you ever saw,” said Doug Hunt, a Refuge Ranger for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “When doing anything else, they’re pretty laughable. They’re clumping around.”

Hunt has worked closely with brown pelicans for the past 12 years.  He remembers those years when the pelicans were not so plentiful.

“I moved to Biloxi in 1986,” Hunt said. “I saw two pelicans that year, and I worked on Ship Island all summer.”

Brown pelicans were actually nowhere to be found in Mississippi or Louisiana in the early 60s. The birds were slaughtered for their feathers and their eggs were harvested.  Another threat was the massive loss of coastal habitat.  Then in the late 50s, the pelicans endured the devastating effects of the pesticide DDT.

“It was DDT coming down the Mississippi River, Pearl River and all this, and getting in the fish and then getting in the birds. The problem was it would weaken the birds’ eggs and the birds would not be able to raise babies. It was a pretty big scare,” said Hunt.

The birds were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1970. DDT was banned shortly after that. Nesting sites were established and barrier island restoration became a national priority.

Ordinary citizens and conservation organizations also joined the fight to save the pelicans.  The Wildlife Care and Rescue Center in Jackson County was founded in 1994. Director Alison Sharpe and about a dozen volunteers help save sick or injured animals.

“We probably, on average, take somewhere between 20 to 50 pelicans in a year.  Just since the beginning of this year, we had eight of them come in,” said Sharpe. “As far as we know, we are the only wildlife center along the coast that does deal with rehabilitation of pelicans. They’re one of my favorite birds.”

Her latest patient is a feisty juvenile pelican that was found on the Pascagoula beach several weeks ago.  It has a broken leg and wing.

“The break was right in the elbow joint,” said Sharpe as she held up the bird’s wing.

But the bird was found too late. Its injuries were so severe, it will never fly again.

“She may walk with a limp all the time,” Sharpe said.

But Sharpe finds comfort in the fact that so many others have been returned to the wild.

“They’ve made such a wonderful comeback and I think that people that care about wildlife and the environment, they need to really help by rescuing and rehabing.  That’s where my passion lies,” said Sharpe.

The signature birds came soaring back from the brink of extinction.  Dr. Mark LaSalle is the director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center. The group has been tracking the pelican population.

“The first records of the return of brown pelicans came from the annual Christmas bird count in 1983 and I think they recorded three pelicans that year.  Now, that’s not necessarily the total, but that’s what they saw that day.  I think last year, there were 370 or so pelicans,” said LaSalle.

According to federal wildlife officials, the number of brown pelicans once fell to around 10,000. The birds have made such a remarkable comeback, last December, they were removed from the Endangered Species List.         

Even though the brown pelican was taken off the list, the birds are not quite out of danger yet.  This year, they’re placed on a mandatory monitoring program.  Which means for the next ten years, they’ll be closely watched to make sure the population continues to recover.

“It’s a good indicator that the system is healthy,” said LaSalle.  “Because they were endangered, they were almost extinct, and they’ve come back.  That to me is just beautiful to watch.”

“I think it’s impressive. It took 40 years, but it works. We’ve done it.  It’s a success,” said Hunt.  

There are more than 650,000 brown pelicans across the Gulf and Pacific Coast, as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Brown pelicans don’t like to nest in Mississippi.  Like us humans, they come here to feast on the wonderful seafood from the Mississippi Sound.

By Trang Pham-Bui (WLOX)

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