Brown Pelicans in the Chesapeake

By Jill Mulford

Brown Pelicans have made a comeback on the Chesapeake Bay. Victims of the use of DDT, which was banned in 1972, they were scarce on the Atlantic Coast and placed on the endangered list. Ancient Indian records show no evidence that these birds existed as far north as the Bay, but over time, they began to migrate here from Florida in summer. They were not a rare sight in the early 1900s but became that way as the DDT thinned their eggs, and by 1987 there were only five nesting pairs on the Bay. Gradually, their resurgence was noted, pelican chicks were tagged and tracked, and now there are over 1,000 pair. In 2009, they were removed from the endangered list. Some scientists believe that the birds, which were only found in the lower Chesapeake, have moved northward into the middle Chesapeake because of gradually warming climate. Research shows that severe storms over the Carolinas in the 1990s caused many to continue their migrations to Virginia and Maryland. Others scientists attribute this migratory pattern to the health of the Bay, saying that it’s an indicator of good food supply.


People find Pelicans to be comical looking and enjoy watching them. Beautiful in flight, they are big birds, ranging in weight from 6 to 12 pounds with a long beak and an elastic throat. Their wing span can be up to 8 feet. The ones we see are Brown Pelicans. They are brown to black in color

with a whiter head and a yellow forehead. They can see a school of fish from 70 feet high and dive at full force into the water to grab one. They take it into their mouth and their throat stretches to accommodate both the fish and the water. They then drain the water and swallow the fish whole. Pelicans especially like to feed on menhaden, a kind of herring found in our water. Surprisingly, they can eat 4 pounds a day.


In the South, Brown Pelicans are much more common and get used to people and fishing boats. They sit on pilings and even spend the afternoon resting on the bows and sides of boats sitting in marinas. They are not so plentiful on the Bay as to have become a nuisance, but the possibility is there. They are not native to our area so don’t have many predators. It will be interesting to see how far north they progress and whether we begin to see them standing on our walking path or roosting on our pilings. Right now, they are seen mostly if you are out on the water in your boat and have ventured as far as Solomon’s. Like some Queen’s Landing residents, they like to spend their winters in Florida or the Caribbean!


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