Scientists track banded brown pelicans and discover surprising migratory patterns
Brown pelicans, the largest and most impressive seabirds of the Texas coast, can be seen on any given day gliding over Gulf waters in V-formation and plunging for their daily meals.
If you’re fond of watching pelicans at work or play, keep your eyes open for one wearing a bright green bracelet with three white letters or digits beginning with “T” for Texas.
If you spot one, there’s a group of scientists studying pelican migratory patterns and wants to hear from you.
“In Texas, we tagged 300 pelican chicks in 2014, and since that time, only 18 of those have been seen,” said Juliet Lamb, a seabird researcher who is tracking migratory patterns with her colleague, Yvan Satgé, at the South Carolina Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
The band code refers to the location where each pelican was hatched. Pelicans born in Louisiana and Florida also are being tracked, but wear a different color band.
Galveston Bay is the home of the largest colony of brown pelicans in Texas — about 6,000 pairs. The pelicans come together each spring to mate and raise chicks.
Conventional wisdom held that the pelicans stayed in the same location year-round, but that may not be the case.
“It seems brown pelicans are not as sedentary as we thought,” Lamb said.
Most of the banded birds have been spotted in Texas, but researchers were surprised when others showed up in Louisiana, Vera Cruz, Mexico and as far south as the Yucatán.
The travelers were primarily female.
“Males, it appears, stay more local,” she said. “We think they may be able to handle colder weather better because they are larger and heavier, and possibly they want to be the first to arrive at the breeding grounds in the spring.”
Brown pelicans are social birds that live in large colonies.
“They will let you participate in their lives and watch them, if you don’t disturb them too much,” Satgé said.
If you’re around them very often, they recognize you, he said.
“Chicks come out of their eggs naked,” he said. “They look like dinosaurs because they are descendants of dinosaurs. Pelicans have existed in the current morphology for at least 30 million years.”
Although the chicks make plenty of noise, adult pelicans don’t vocalize.
“They communicate in other ways,” Lamb said.
Pelican parents actually incubate their eggs by standing on them, keeping the eggs warm with their webbed feet.
They share the work of sitting on the nest and getting food to their offspring, usually two chicks.
The first month after the babies are hatched, one adult stays with the nest while the other hunts for food, and they alternate. When one parent pelican returns to the nest, the two bow their heads to each other and touch beaks to greet each other, Lamb said.
Tracking migration patterns is important to learn about the lives of these birds and the obstacles they face in survival, researchers say.
It’s a species that has had a serious brush with extinction. Brown pelicans were endangered in the 1960s and 1970s as their numbers fell to a perilous level, the effects of DDT, a chemical used in agriculture.
Once restrictions on DDT were put in place, the pelicans began to make a slow comeback. Now, the pelican numbers are healthy.
The oldest known brown pelican is 43 years old. Worldwide, there are eight species of pelicans, but brown pelicans are the only ones who live in a marine environment year-round and who catch food by plunge diving.
If you spot a banded pelican, note the date, location and band number, if possible. To report the sighting, go to the website at projectpelican.weebly.com or use the twitter feed @project_pelican. Reach Satgé by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.