Brown Pelican Numbers Hit Record High in the Farallones

The Farallon Islands, located in the Gulf of the Farallones off the coast of San Francisco, California, around 32 kilometers south of Point Reyes, are home to a growing number of Brown Pelicans that at one time were facing extinction. Conservationists at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory have noted that the numbers of these fascinating birds have reached a forty-year peak, which is great news for all who have been keeping track of fluctuating Brown Pelican numbers since 1968.

In 1968 the Brown Pelican population was struggling to recover from DDT poisoning, a controversial toxic pesticide that was used extensively for crop spraying. The DDT had washed from fields into the water and accumulated in the fish that were eaten by the pelicans. This resulted in the thinning of the pelican’s egg shells, which in turn prevented the embryos from developing properly. The pelican population at that time numbered 363. This year the mid-July count on Southeast Farallon Island recorded 5,856 pelicans – the highest count since records started to be kept in 1968.

The observatory’s education and outreach director, Melissa Pitkin, and observatory biologist Russ Bradley, are delighted with the latest count results and the fact that the birds are covering the marine terrace and large numbers are roosting in other areas of the island. It is very likely that this number may increase in the fall, which has historically been the case.

The Brown Pelican population on the Farallon Islands (often referred to simply as the Farralones) has fluctuated dramatically over the past forty years, with 1984 being the only other time that their numbers exceeded 5,000. In the late 1970s the population was around 2,000 and after increasing to over 5,000 in 1984, it dropped back to less than 2,000 towards the end of that decade. In the 1990s the number fell below 1,000 before rising to more than 4,000 and dropping to less than 3,000 just before the end of the millennium. In the early 2000’s the population was around 1,000 and climbed to its current number of 5,856. There are a number of reasons for these drastic fluctuations, including changes in food sources, weather events such as El Nino and synchronous timing of the pelican’s usual northward movement.

The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is between 106-137 cm in length, with a wingspan of between 1.8 and 1.5 meters and weighing between 2.8 and 5.5 kgs. They are accomplished divers, and unlike many pelican species that fish from the surface, Brown Pelicans dive from the air to deftly catch anchovies, sardines and shrimp. They are also known to eat invertebrates such as squid and are often seen around docks and fishing boats waiting for scraps of fish.

The worldwide Brown Pelican population is estimated at 650,000 with around 400,000 of these being resident in Peru. In light of the ongoing concern about issues such as global warming and the resultant negative effects being seen in nature, the fact that Brown Pelican numbers are increasing is very encouraging to bird lovers and conservationists.