A Pelican Puzzle
By Jenna Boyle Feehan
Published: 06/21/2010  Updated: 06/20/2019

A few decades ago, Brown Pelicans were on the cusp of extinction. Today the species abounds, but some curious behavior on the Northwest Coast has researchers confounded.

The Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis) has become a well-known visitor to the Northwest coast. Arriving from southerly breeding grounds in early summer, these gregarious seabirds can be seen in Oregon and Washington waters, flying low over the waves or propelling themselves into the sea in pursuit of fish. With a wingspan stretching up to eight feet and weighing in at 6-12 pounds, the Brown Pelican is hard to miss.

These iconic creatures haven't always been observable on the Northwest coast. Population numbers plummeted in the middle of the last century, largely due to the accumulation of DDT in marine waters and consequently in the Brown Pelicans' food supply. The pesticide enfeebled eggshells and the birds' reproductive success flatlined. Threatened also by hunting and widespread loss of coastal habitat, Brown Pelicans were estimated at fewer than 5,000 breeding pairs and in 1970 found their way onto the list of Endangered Species. Conservation efforts, including the 1972 banning of DDT, led to the steady recovery of population numbers and in 1982, the first substantial pelican migration in decades was observed in Oregon. Recent counts estimate 650,000 Brown Pelicans throughout North and Central America, and the bird was removed from the Endangered Species list at the end of last year.

The past two winters, however, Brown Pelicans have been exhibiting peculiar behavior. Rather than promptly migrating southward in October, thousands of pelicans lingered on the North coast. When winter storms hit, the birds began to have difficulty hunting, and soon were turning up on docks and in parking lots, emaciated and disoriented and begging for whatever food might be thrown their way. Pelicans filled the Wildlife Center of the North Coast to the tippy-top of its britches, and researchers scrambled for answers. Though shifting ocean currents, algal blooms and the El Nino effect have been postulated as causes for some pelicans' abandonment of southerly migration, conclusions have yet to be made.

The Audubon Society points to rising global temperatures, noting that more than half of North American birds have pushed their wintertime ranges northward. If the emerging trend continues, with thousands of pelicans apparently attempting to overwinter in the Northwest, the birds will undoubtedly continue to struggle; they are poorly-adapted to cold weather and aren't able to dive for food during tempestuous Northwest winter storms.

But if some pelicans are able to successfully overwinter, there is potential for a hardy new subspecies in the making. East Sand Island, located at the mouth of the Columbia River, is a firmly established roosting site--biologists counted upwards of 16,000 birds last July and pelicans have been observed making nests and attempting to mate. Though none have successfully reproduced, the possibility of a new breeding colony brings a bit of hope to the pelicans' current plight.

If you encounter a sick, hungry or injured pelican, please resist the urge to feed it and call the Wildlife Center pager at (503) 338-3954. Dead pelicans should be reported to the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team at (206) 221-6893.
A Pelican Puzzle