On Georgia’s coast, you can expect to see vast salt marshes, wide sandy beaches, rolling surf – and brown pelicans. Conspicuously perched on a piling or standing in a small flock on the beach, the brown pelican is as much a coastal icon as a shrimp trawler moored to a wooden dock.
So the Interior Department’s recent announcement that the brown pelican is being taken off the federal Endangered Species List was welcome news. The bird was declared an endangered species in 1970 after its population was decimated by use of the now-banned pesticide DDT – similar to the plights of the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle.
Actually, the federal government in 1985 removed brown pelicans living in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and up the Atlantic Coast from the list, but the recent decision takes it off the list throughout its range, including the western Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
With its somewhat grotesque appearance – large body, long wings, long bill and huge pouch – the brown pelican is one of Georgia’s most instantly recognizable birds. It shows little fear of humans as it squats on a fishing pier waiting for a handout.
Webbing between the four toes on each foot makes it a strong swimmer but an awkward, almost comical, walker.
In flight, however, the brown pelican is in its glory. Its long wings carry it gracefully over the water. Like a squadron of airplanes, pelican flocks often glide just above the water’s surface.
“They invariably fly in a straight line, with alternate flapping and soaring, and where there are two or more, one follows the other with a precision equaled by few other species,” wrote the late ornithologist Thomas Burleigh in “Georgia Birds.”
Brown pelicans feed almost exclusively on fish and are noted for their spectacular, seemingly violent head-first dives from the air to snatch unsuspecting fish, which end up in the bird’s expandable pouch.
Brown pelicans are highly social year-round and often breed in spring in huge colonies.
In Georgia, they typically build their nests on the ground on small offshore islands or sandbars, where they are free from disturbance and predators. Oddly, although brown pelicans always have been present on Georgia’s coast, they weren’t known to nest here until 1988, when biologists found 200 nests on a vegetated sandbar at the northern end of St. Catherines Island.
No one knows for sure why pelicans didn’t breed in Georgia until then, but a theory is that the birds may have been trying to avoid pests. Pelicans especially are plagued by bird ticks, and they may avoid a potential nesting site if it is heavily infested with ticks.
In the sky: The moon will be first quarter on Tuesday – in the south at sunset and setting around midnight, says David Dundee, astronomer with the Tellus Northwest Georgia Science Museum.
Venus rises in the east just before the sun. Mars rises out of the east just about midnight. Jupiter is high in the south at sunset and sets in the west about midnight. It will appear near the moon on Monday night. Saturn rises out of the east about two hours before sunrise.