Brown Pelicans Making A Comeback Since 1960s

Brown pelicans can be seen everywhere now, but that wasn't always the case.

The birds disappeared from coastal Mississippi and Louisiana in the early 1960's. Pollution from pesticides killed off the birds. Then wildlife biologists then launched an aggressive recovery program that involved relocating brown pelicans from the east coast of Florida to some barrier islands off the coast of southeast Louisiana.

That program which began in 1968 sparked the remarkable resurgence of the brown pelican population. Brown pelicans soar above South Gossier Island. The barrier island habitat supports a thriving pelican population.

"On this island, we've got 2,850 nests," biologist James Harris said.

Harris and his team of biologists should know the numbers. They're responsible for keeping a current count of birds, nests and eggs.

The now thriving pelican population represents a wildlife management success story. Not long ago, the birds were in serious trouble.

"By the early '60s, they had been completely wiped out in Louisiana as far as nesting pairs," Harris said. "There were no more nesting pelicans in Louisiana or in Mississippi or in Alabama or along the entire northern Gulf Coast. They'd been wiped out."

The widespread use of pesticides, primarily DDT, caused egg shell thinning. Weakened eggs were crushed by nesting adults. The thriving pelican population is the result of a successful relocation effort.

"Back in the mid 1960s, a group of interested wildlife fisheries personnel, along with the Audubon Society, got together with Florida to develop a plan to transplant Florida birds to Louisiana," biologist Tom Hess said.

Birds were moved from the east coast of Florida in 1968 to southeast Louisiana. From those birds, we have our existing birds today.

South Gossier Island is among several offshore habitats with active nesting colonies.

"They re-introduced the birds in this part of the state up on North Island, one of the islands in the Chandeleur chain, and they just took off from there," Harris said. "This year they're on four different islands, and we expect that they may spread to other islands."

Tougher regulations helped eliminate the threat of manmade pesticides, but the birds face another problem more difficult to control, mother nature. Storms are an ongoing threat to the birds habitat.

"One thing we did see with Hurricane Georges, when it came through, we lost a lot of the island habitat out here. The island where we're at now, probably lost 60 percent of the vegetated island."

There's enough island habitat now to sustain large nesting colonies. The numbers reflect the health of the pelican population.

"Last year, during 2001, we had over 16,000 pairs that produced over 34,000 young. The birds and the population as a whole in Louisiana are doing extremely well," Hess said.

The population may be healthy enough to remove the brown pelican from the endangered species list. It's still on that list in both Louisiana and Mississippi, but a petition to remove it is currently under review.