The famous limerick by Dixon Lanier is not far from the truth in its description of the fantastic birds to which we have the privilege of enjoying every day in our area. A pelican's pouch indeed can hold up to three times more than its "belly can." Nature's most efficient dip net, the bird holds its catch until the accompanying water, up to three gallons- is squeezed out.
There seven pelican species worldwide and they can measure up to 54 inches long with wingspans up to 7-1/2 feet! The brown pelican is the smallest and most common in our area. At maturity, breeding adults have white necks, pale yellow crowns, grayish brown bodies and black feet. They’re strong swimmers and have keen eyesight, able to spot even small fish from heights of 70 feet. Watching a pelican out-fish even the most experienced and well-equipped fishermen on area jetties and piers is one of mother nature's most delightful shows! The way they soar above the water, dive straight down and then surface with a mouthful of fish is never a dull thing to witness.
Brown pelicans are a social bunch. The congregate and nest in large groups most of the time and typically breed between three and five years. Females lay 2 or three eggs that take about a month to hatch. March through May are peak egg laying months in Florida. Baby pelicans are born blind, featherless and completely dependent upon Mom and Dad. The average age of first flight is 75 days.
Pelicans have no natural enemies, and their biggest threat comes from people. In addition to being hunted for their feathers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they also suffered alarming declines due to the widespread use of the pesticide DDT in the 1940s. Contaminated fish lead to breading difficulty due to thin eggs that broke more often than not during incubation. Pelicans were also subject to slaughter because of the erroneous belief that they posed a threat to commercial fisheries. All of this resulted in their nearly complete disappearance from the Gulf Coast by the 1960s and put the entire population in danger of extinction. Fortunately, studies conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service among other agencies proved that this was not the case and in 1970 a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973 listed the brown pelican as endangered.
Following the 1972 Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on the use of DDT and various conservation programs that included the management of nesting islands and the creation of new dredge spoils, the brown pelican’s comeback has been historic. By 1985 they were removed from the endangered list in most of the eastern U.S. including Florida, and today the U.S Fish and Wildlife Services estimates the global population of brown pelicans at 650,000.
In 1903, thanks to relentless efforts of Sebastian resident and “Great Floridian” Paul Kroegel to protect birds on the tiny little island across the water from his homestead, President Theodore Roosevelt designated the first national wildlife refuge right here in our backyard. Florida's Pelican Island is located in the Indian River Lagoon near Sebastian. Its 5400 acres of protected land and waters provide critical support for many endangered species and is a historical rookery for migratory birds.
This weekend the Pelican Island Preservation Society, a local organization established in 1993 and guardian angels of this very special island will host the 26th Annual Pelican Island Wildlife Festival. On Saturday, March 3 from 10 am to 4 pm visitors to Riverview Park will join in the celebration of the 115th anniversary of the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. The country's premiere Theodore Roosevelt interpreter, Joe Wiegland, will once again serve as Master of Ceremonies and teach about the history of Pelican Island and the efforts to protect its birds. Activities will include Live Wildlife Shows, Rehabilitated Pelican release (if available), Environmental Exhibitors, Arts & Crafts, Native Plants for sale, Kids' Activities and games, Various Food Vendors, Educational Presentations, Historical Reenactments and an amateur photography contest. Boat tours to the island will also be available. This festival is one of the most popular wildlife festivals in the region and draws thousands of people every year.
Learn more at firstrefuge.org