The California Brown Pelican

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

You’ll see them all along the California coast, crashing into the ocean and gracefully gliding just above rolling waves. They, along with the less common white pelican, are the biggest flying critters on the coast. Brown pelicans boast a wingspan up to 6½ feet, with white pelicans reaching an astounding 9½ feet. The browns breed only on offshore islands from the Channel Islands south to Baja California, but they migrate north from May or June until December. The whites breed on islands of landlocked lakes and mostly visit the coast near Point Reyes in autumn. If pelicans look a little prehistoric, it’s because the breed began at least 30 million years ago.

You can easily observe brown pelicans on the coast because of both their large size and unusual social and feeding characteristics. Flying in long lines, sometimes fifty feet in the air, sometimes gliding inches above a wave as it rolls towards shore, flapping their wings a few times before gliding, pelicans apparently use the slight updraft created by the wave to maintain the glide. They may be the only bird that synchronizes wing beats on a cue from the leader. In a dramatic feeding technique a single brown pelican will suddenly peel off from the line and plunge beak first into the surf for a fish. Protective air sacks in the skull protect the pelican from the shock of the collision. The white pelican doesn’t dive. Instead groups float on the surface, herding fish together before scooping them up. The large pouch fills with water and fish, the water ejected and the fish swallowed whole when the pelican reaches the surface.

The tale of the pelican must include the harrowing events that led to its near extinction. DDT, an extremely toxic insecticide used widely in agriculture, was the culprit. The chemical didn’t break down in the environment but instead polluted streams and rivers from runoff, which eventually reached the ocean. The fish in the coastal zone absorbed the toxins and were then eaten by pelicans. The pollutants affected the metabolism of the birds, resulting in thin shelled eggs easily broken by the incubating bird inside, causing the failure of a timely hatch. This caused the brown pelican population to decrease by about 90 percent over twenty years. The U.S. government finally banned DDT in 1971 and the pelican population has rebounded. Although the pelican was saved, pollutants in the runoff from towns and farms remain a problem for the overall health and water quality of the coastal zone.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols