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Local pelican population back on rise after dive

Federal and state environmental officials are considering removing the California brown pelican from their endangered species lists, where it has held a place for more than 30 years. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
Federal and state environmental officials are considering removing the California brown pelican from their endangered species lists, where it has held a place for more than 30 years. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired Dan Anderson in the 1970s to study the problems plaguing a bird with a grim future.

"They were in trouble then. It was looking pretty bleak," Anderson, a wildlife ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of California at Davis, said of the California brown pelican that he has studied for more than 30 years.

The strong Southern California population that once totaled in the thousands had dipped to the hundreds. The drop came mostly from the affects of DDT, a now-banned pesticide that causes birds to produce eggs with shells too thin to sustain babies.

"They were in bad shape," Anderson said.

Now, both federal and state environmental officials are considering removing the California brown pelican from their endangered species lists, where it has held a place for more than 30 years.

"I'm glad they're doing this," said Anderson, who helped craft a recovery plan for the bird in 1983. "A review is when things start looking up."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Fish and Game Commission reviews follow requests from the California nonprofit Endangered Species Recovery Council to delist the bird.

That move follows research showing pelican numbers in the thousands again, with the birds nesting on islands that they had not used since the years before DDT crushed their population.

"It's been very encouraging to see," Anderson said.

The California Department of Fish and Game has recommended that the California Fish and Game Commission consider delisting the bird. The commission will review the suggestion at a Dec. 7 meeting.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the brown pelican on the Atlantic Coast in 1985. The bird's Louisiana population is under review for a similar move.

The California brown pelican subspecies breeds off the coast of Mexico and Southern California in the winter and spring then flies to Northern California, Oregon and Washington in the summer.

In recent years, wildlife biologist Deborah Jaques has counted 3,500 of them in Del Norte County. Most roost at Castle Rock off Pebble Beach and lately, hundreds of them have found a reliable dining spot at Lake Earl.

Jaques has also noticed a lot of juveniles — recognized by their brown feathers and white bellies, compared to the adults' white heads. The younger birds' visits show successful breeding in the south, said Jaques, a former Crescent City resident who runs Pacific Eco Logic out of Astoria, Ore., and has studied the pelicans since 1986.

Like many large birds, the California brown pelican hints at the health of its environment, serving as an indicator of problems as it travels long coastal stretches.

The bird still faces challenges — oil spills, starvation, food competition with commercial fisheries and entanglements in fishing gear. But its main threats come in the form of big changes to habitat, loss of food and an inability to adapt to climate changes, Anderson said.

Protecting roosting sites — such as some eroding coastal islands — remains key to protecting the bird, said Jaques. And the easily-stressed pelican needs a wide berth from people who disturb their roosts while walking, riding off-road vehicles or letting dogs wander.

But the endangered species act that prevents human actions, such as development, from harming an animal and its habitat likely helped save the pelican, Anderson said. It also probably prompted Mexico's conservation programs — a key to boosting the bird's breeding.

"It's more than a numbers game," he said of the listing and recovery efforts. "It's the whole system that the animal is in."

*****

CALIFORNIA BROWN PELICAN FACTS

• Webbed-foot water bird dives head first for fish

• Larger than other brown pelicans, they weigh 4.5 to 11 pounds with wingspans stretching 6.5 feet

• Grayish-brown color

with white heads as

adults, brown

feathers with white

bellies as juveniles

• Range from Mexico

to southern British

Columbia

• Nest off the coast of

Mexico and on the

Channel Islands,

Anacapa Islands,

Santa Barbara

Islands and in the

Gulf of California

• Lay about three eggs

that hatch after four

weeks, while both

males and females

help incubate them

Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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