May 3 2011 04:07 PM

Pelicans are large and in charge, but their future is murky


“Ten!” Jenny has counted the pelicans in the v-shaped formation that just swooped in about 50 feet above my patio and then vanished behind the apartments next door.

As soon as they're out of view, another, larger group emerges overhead from behind my cottage, like the Imperial Star Destroyer at the beginning of Star Wars, and glides out toward the top of the capital “T” that is the Ocean Beach Pier.


“There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how many of them'll fly together,” I tell her. "Sometimes it's hundreds, sometimes pairs. And there's some renegade-type Jonathan Livingston Pelicans.”

Living smack in front of the tide pools in O.B. for 11 years will make an amateur pelican expert out of you, and it occurs to me that this year, something looks different:

“I've never seen so many of them. And they're flying lower, too.”

The two of us spend the rest of the afternoon sitting there, drinking beer, gazing at the pelican formations that drift and circle, hover and adjust against the blue sky and the individuals that suddenly break off to plummet into the water after fish. It's a heart-stirring sign of spring at the beach.

Turns out I'm not the only one noticing the expansion of this year's San Diego pelican population. On April 26, The San Diego Union-Tribune's Matt Hall reported that other coastal residents, as well as lifeguards, visitors, conservationists and scientists, have noted the apparent massive increase in the number of the big birds showing up at local beaches this month. 

“The numbers are incredible,” 35-year veteran lifeguard at Torrey Pines State Beach told Hall. “Literally thousands and thousands of pelicans are off our coast right now. It's unprecedented.”

Biologist John Hyde told Hall that no concurrent increase in the local fish population has been recorded, but Laird Henkle, an environmental scientist for the Department of Fish and Game, assured him that “the bottom line is (the birds) go where the food is.” Henkle thinks the pelican increase may indicate a shortage of sardines and anchovies in the warmer waters of Mexico that usually lure them further south on their long breeding journey down from Canada.

According to Webster's, “pelican” derives from the Greek word pelekys, meaning “axe,” after birds like woodpeckers that use their bills as axes—though how that got applied to pelicans isn't clear: The only thing you'll see a pelican do with its beak is catch fish.

Our local brown pelicans' ability to make the journey here depends on their big wings (a span up to 8 feet), which contain an unusually large number of flight feathers, allowing them to float on currents for more than 100 miles at a stretch. They're communal birds with a complex courtship ritual involving multiple males chasing a single female. Can you relate? At the end of the day, they nest in colonies.

Pelicans may appear to be wounding themselves when they tuck their bills against their breasts to empty their food-scooping bills, so in the ancient world, they earned a reputation as self-sacrificial and, according to the Arlington Catholic Herald, even became a symbol of Christ's sacrifice. About 40 years ago, brown pelicans were rendered almost completely extinct, thanks to humans.

Here in Ocean Beach, there was one famous pelican back in the early 1970s nicknamed “Pete” that didn't seem to hold a grudge: Pete lived on the O.B. pier and seemed to prefer humans to other pelicans. He would return and hang around for several years, I've been told by locals who remember him. He's also mentioned and pictured in the pages of the hard-to-find, out-of-print 1975 book of photographs and stories, The Far End of America: A Book about Ocean Beach, California, by former O.B. resident Richard Louv.

Maybe Pete was depressed about the near-extinction of his species and decided to become an O.B. drifter, or maybe he was trying to send us a warning.

Back in 1970, the population of brown pelicans had dwindled due to widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which pelicans absorbed from tainted fish, causing their eggs to be so thin that they'd break during incubation. The brown pelican was put on the endangered species list, DDT was banned and the population made a remarkable comeback. Yay, good government!

Brown pelicans were all over the news at the end of 2009, when they were finally removed from the endangered species list.

But just as things are looking up, they can go south again.

Pelicans are the state bird of Louisiana, gracing the state seal and flag—but last year's Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill may have so damaged the ecosystem that the subspecies of brown pelican may completely die off.

Congress ended its 26-year ban on offshore drilling in the Pacific in 2008, and West Coast senators have been fighting to reintroduce such a ban ever since.

Bans are never secure.

Consider that there's been intense lobbying in recent years by chemical companies to bring back DDT as the sure-fire (actually quite debatable) solution to Africa's malaria problem.

History does not naturally arc toward progress; it behaves like pelican formations—randomly and capriciously, dependant on the whims of individuals, the selection of group leaders and the decisions they make on behalf of groups.

If an arrow of pelicans soaring by is to symbolize an arrow pointing at something, let it point to the necessity of engagement in the political process—unless you'd like the Republicans to take over and the pelicans to disappear for good.    

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