Today we are discussing brown pelicans of Louisiana. Our state and the brown pelican have a storied connection. As far back as 1699 journals of explorers made reference to the birds. Some say that William Claiborne, the first governor of the territory after the Louisiana Purchase, originally suggested putting the bird on Louisiana’s state seal. A pelican feeding its young did show up on the seal in 1804.
John James Audubon said the brown pelican was “one of the most interesting or our American birds”. He noted their voracity when they follow shoals of porpoises and “snatch up the frightened fishes that strive to escape from them”. In 1912 the state flag also displayed a pelican feeding her young. The final accomplishment for our beloved brown pelican came in 1966. That is the year it was officially named the state bird of Louisiana.
The Shocking Truth
The very year the brown pelican was named the state bird it completely vanished from Louisiana’s shores. Their numbers went up and down through the decades but by the mid 1960s numbers dwindled to near nothing. Researchers thought the decline may have been due to two tropical storms that tore up the coastal islands where they nested. However, across the country at the same time California was losing their population of brown pelicans.
Scientists discovered that the pesticide DDT was prevalent in the waters where the birds fed on fish. DDT did not kill the birds directly. It caused a problem with the shells of their eggs which wiped out a whole population of chicks.
A Sign of Hope
By 1968 Louisiana began efforts to restock the brown pelicans on Queen Bess Island just south of New Orleans. The state spent millions to restore the island’s shoreline and that really paid off. This spring thousands of pelicans returned to nest on Queen Bess Island. The island supports 15%-20% of the entire state’s nesting activity. And once again brown pelicans can be regularly seen by the residents of New Orleans.
The Savvy Native is a group of experienced local tour guides who were either born in New Orleans or wish they had been.
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