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by Dave Brinker
Did you ever get in trouble with your mother -- as an adult? Well, I did! The year was 1987 and I was conducting research for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on colonial nesting water birds while living in a comfortable but rustic, 50-year-old pine-paneled hunting lodge on tiny, uninhabited Tizzard Island in Chincoteague Bay.

Electricity at our outpost consisted of 12-volt service from marine batteries that we charged on the mainland. Running water was a shallow well and hand pump next to the kitchen sink. The “facilities” were the new outhouse out back, and we cooked on two stoves fired by wood or propane. That first spring out there, my wife boasted to her mother of cooking dinner on a wood stove as we opened up the field station over a cool Easter weekend. Refrigeration was a 1930s-style icebox with ice hauled from Salisbury; a 100-pound block lasted a week during April and May but barely two days in the heat of summer. And with no such thing as cell phone service back then, the island was a remote and wonderful place to spend two summers doing research.

The trouble with my mother started when I was fortunate enough to find the first brown pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis) nest ever recorded in the state. While this was great news for the Maryland Colonial Water Bird Project, we wanted to keep it quiet until the eggs hatched. My field crew was sworn to secrecy and only one person within DNR knew of the nest. I didn’t even tell my research counterpart on the Chesapeake Bay side of the Delmarva Peninsula!

Once the eggs hatched, we contacted the local news media with this “feel good” story. Little did we expect that news of this nest would make the front page of the Baltimore Sun and even get picked up by the national wire services!

I’m getting to the part about the trouble with Mom…

My father and his cousin, both Cumberland natives, left Maryland as young men in the late 1940s to work in the factories of Milwaukee, but their hearts remained along the Potomac River. When Cousin Jimmy read in USA Today’s Maryland Roundup that I had discovered the state’s first brown pelican nest, he immediately called Dad. And that was it for Mom. Why, she wanted to know, did she hear such exciting news from a newspaper rather than from her own son! As was the case in my younger days, no excuse was acceptable, not even the argument that we didn’t have a phone on the island. She never let me forget that breach of family etiquette, even years later while birding on Delmarva with her young grandson. But as with any good tale, the trouble I got into was well worth it; my life and the lives of many have been enhanced by brown pelicans ever since.

A Species on the Edge
Rewind 40 years. The mid-20th century was the time of the great environmentalist Rachel Carson’s revolutionary publication, Silent Spring. Brown pelican populations nationwide had been seriously reduced as a result of the use of the pesticide DDT, which caused the birds to lay paper-thin eggshells that could not be incubated properly. Virtually extirpated from the Gulf Coast and very seriously reduced in Florida and the Carolinas, pelicans were listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species. When the pesticide was finally banned in the 1970s, populations slowly began to recover, first on the Atlantic Coast and eventually on the Gulf as well. So the 1987 story of Maryland’s first brown pelican nest in recorded history was indeed big news!

As they gained their flight feathers and neared the age of fledgling, Maryland’s first five brown pelican chicks were banded with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service bird bands. Why all the fuss? This was a unique opportunity to document and monitor an expanding bird population, to understand the expansion of pelicans north along the Atlantic Coast.

In order to conserve and protect the species, DNR needs to know where the pelicans from Maryland spend their winter and how successful their breeding colonies are each year. Counting the number of breeding pairs and banding their offspring each season provides a good way to assess the reproductive output of the Maryland population. Since those first five, over 95 percent of the chicks raised in the state each summer have been banded.

Maryland also cooperates with the Virginia Division Game & Inland Fisheries to study the large pelican colony that exists across the MD-VA line on the group of islands, some little more than sandbars, that make up the Smith Island archipelago. As of the end of 2005, over 11,600 pelican chicks had been banded. Hundreds have also been fitted with blue leg bands bearing easily readable codes to increase recovery information.

Far & Wide
The banding effort has provided us with wonderful insights into the movements of Mid-Atlantic-born brown pelicans. The first recorded in Maine was a juvenile that had made its way to an inland lake only four weeks after being banded in Maryland as a nearly-fledged chick. Others have reached Bermuda, Louisiana, Texas, the Yucatan, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. During the winter, most Chesapeake Bay pelicans spread out from the mouth of the Bay, south through Florida and Cuba.

Pelicans from the Mid-Atlantic population are believed to be the most migratory of the species. The birds begin their migration in October and slowly move south, with most reaching Florida and the Caribbean during December and January. Yes, they behave like “snowbirds” – but without the golf carts!

As their regional population has grown, so have the locations of their colonies. Since 1987, brown pelicans have nested on a number of islands in Delmarva’s Coastal Bays and along the Chesapeake. Two traditional colony sites -- Fisherman’s Island at the mouth of the Bay and the marshes south of Ewell on Smith Island --now represent the core of the Mid-Atlantic population, with 750 to 1,000 pairs breeding at each location. In many years, smaller satellite breeding colonies have been found on other Chesapeake and Delmarva coastal bay islands.

At present, Maryland retains its distinction as the northernmost state along the Atlantic Coast where brown pelicans nest. Our birds begin nest building and egg laying in April and most chicks leave the breeding colonies during August and September. Since it takes 13 weeks from the start of incubation until pelican chicks are capable of flight, expansion of breeding pelicans is limited to areas with relatively long frost-free periods. With continued pressures from the expanding population, the “northernmost” title will likely soon be passed to a neighboring state, most likely New Jersey. Summer shortens quickly as one moves north along the coast from Maryland; how far up this expansion will continue is hard to predict but as our climate warms, there will be more room for northward expansion.

Population Explosion
In the late 1980s, no one predicted that the future of brown pelicans in Maryland would turn out to be so dramatic. From that first nesting of four pairs at South Point Spoils in 1987, the heronry in Chincoteague Bay, the Mid-Atlantic population has increased exponentially to 1,500 to 2,500 breeding pairs in the Chesapeake Bay during each of the past six summers! This truly phenomenal expansion of breeding pelicans into the Chesapeake region illustrates the impact of applying sound science to conservation issues. The research that was conducted to better understand the movement of DDT though the food chain ultimately resulted in citizen and governmental action to improve our physical environment. These actions significantly improved the health and lives of Maryland citizens and our native wildlife. As a result, populations of numerous other species – including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and many other lesser-known species -- have significantly recovered from mid-20th century declines. DDT taught us a valuable lesson on the use and misuse of manmade chemicals in our daily lives that continues to affect environmental decision-making.

For now, the future of brown pelicans in the Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay looks bright. Continued monitoring is an essential part of a good management and conservation program. Reproductive success is closely linked to the presence of healthy fisheries, as pelicans feed mainly on menhaden and similar schooling fish. If forage fish populations remain stable and healthy, then pelicans should also do well.

However, the lessons of the 20th century must not be forgotten. Environmental conditions can change quickly. New chemicals with unknown effects are continually being introduced, and sea level rise is eroding away the remote nesting islands essential to many colonial breeding water bird species, including the brown pelican. Regularly, research scientists warn us of declining fisheries and the over-exploitation of our coastal resources.

Maintaining a healthy, diverse and fully functioning Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, both its land and water components, is the best way to conserve both the pelicans and the diversity of Maryland’s flora and fauna. Conservation begins with each of us, at home and in all aspects of our lives.

My parents did not live to see the phenomenal spread of brown pelicans across their beloved home state, but their grandchildren have grown up assisting in the bird-banding and field surveys. With proper care of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, these same children may someday retell the funny story about how Daddy got in trouble with Grandma, to be greeted with disbelief that there once was only one brown pelican nest in Maryland.


Dave Brinker is DNR's Central Region Ecologist, specializing in studies of water and shorebirds.
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