A Pelican Brief

By staff March 1, 2003

Nothing says Florida like a flock of brown pelicans, gliding in perfect formation and silhouetted in the amber glow of a sunset on Sarasota Bay.

Of the seven pelican species distributed worldwide, our "American brown pelican," or "common pelican," is the smallest, although it's not that small. Adults stand about three-and-a-half feet tall, have a wingspan of about seven feet and can weigh as much as 10 pounds. Nor or pelicans particularly common-at least not any more. In fact, by the early 1900s the brown pelican's numbers had declined so drastically that President Theodore Roosevelt declared Pelican Island, a bird rookery off Florida's east coast, America's first national wildlife refuge.

Singly or in small flocks, pelicans patrol the shoreline, looking for fish schooling near the surface. Then they plunge headfirst from a height of 60 feet or more, capturing their prey in their large bills, which can expand to hold up to three gallons. Their skin is lined with air sacs that cushion their impact with the water.

After a dive they surface, squeeze the water out, and swallow any fish trapped inside.

Adult brown pelicans have few natural enemies; most of their problems have been man-made. Today, habitat loss and fishing line entanglements take their toll, but the outlook was darker several decades ago, when DDT and other insecticides threatened to destroy populations in Louisiana, and in Florida. In 1970, the brown pelican was designated an endangered species by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Since then, numbers have stabilized, ensuring those picturesque sunsets for many years to come.

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