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
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
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
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.
The Maryland Natural Resource...Your guide to recreation and conservation in Maryland.