Why pelicans are our cause of the month


Pelican rescue, rehabilitation, and conservation


An iconic coastal species

The brown pelican is the smallest of the world’s six pelican species. They soar over the ocean and use their extremely keen eyesight to identify schools of small fish. Dramatic hunters, brown pelicans plunge headfirst into the water from heights of up to 100 feet and use specialized air sacs beneath their skin to soften the impact. Once they resurface, they’ll squeeze up to 3 gallons of water out of their pouch, which can hold up to three times more fish than their stomachs, and swallow their prey whole.

Found along both coasts in North America, these social and surprisingly graceful seabirds have lived closely alongside humans for centuries. They’re easily affected by human disturbances and environmental pollution, which makes them an important indicator species. Declines in their populations can alert humans to unseen threats in the ocean environment.


Human activity is their biggest threat

Brown pelicans were almost driven to extinction in the 20th century. In fact, their story is part of the reason why the National Wildlife Refuge System was established in the U.S. in 1903. The first major threat came from plume hunters who targeted pelicans for their beautiful feathers, which were highly desired by fashionable millners and their customers.

During the food shortages that followed World War I, struggling commercial fishermen believed pelicans were depleting already limited fish resources and destroying their industry. Thousands more pelicans were slaughtered during this time and their nests raided for eggs. 

Then, in the mid to late 1900s, pollution from a biocide used to control mosquitoes called DDT started poisoning brown pelicans and drove their species to the brink of extinction. By 1970, the brown pelican had become an endangered species.


A remarkable comeback story

In 1972, DDT was banned by the EPA. Since that time, the brown pelican population has not only recovered but expanded, which eventually led to their removal from the endangered species list in 2009. Despite their remarkable comeback story, there are new human threats impacting brown pelicans. Primary threats include pollution from oil spills and plastic waste. 

It’s estimated that 82,000 birds were killed in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including one out of every 10 brown pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico alone. In Florida, it’s estimated that at least 500 pelicans die each year after becoming entangled in fishing gear, plastic bags, and other marine debris. Entanglement can cause serious and even fatal injuries. Pelicans are also known to ingest plastic, which can lead to a false sense of fullness that causes many seabirds to starve.


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