The California Brown Pelican
by Eric Austin Yee
Our guests at Dana Wharf Whale Watching often ask how our captains find dolphins and whales in the wide open ocean. One way is with the help of our often overlooked seabirds. Seabirds often feed on small baitfish and krill which some dolphins and whales feed on also. Dolphins, whales, sea lions and even large pelagic fish often drive their prey to the surface of the ocean making it easier for seabirds to capture their food. Various types of seabirds can be seen pecking at their prey on the surface of the sea or even diving down from the sky to grab a mouthful of fish. Flocks of seabirds can cause quite a commotion out at sea and our captains look for these birds to see if dolphins or whales have joined in on the feast. The largest bird that our guests commonly see is the California brown pelican. Its dive from high above the surface of the ocean can cause a large splash that our sharp eyed captains love to see as a clue to help find dolphins and whales for our guest. This helpful seabird actually almost disappeared off our coastline, but thanks to quick action by scientists and protection by the government it has made an amazing comeback.
Weighing as much as 11 pounds and a wingspan up to 7 feet, the California brown pelican is hard to miss. This large seabird has also been documented flying as fast as 21 mph. Its trademark throat pouch is also an amazing sight and a useful tool for it to grab mouthfuls of some of its favorite prey such as anchovies, sardines, and mackerel. The long beak of the California brown pelican that can reach 18 inches in length, supports this pouch that can hold up to 3 gallons. Not only does the pouch gather the California brown pelican’s food, but it also helps the animal cool down. Holding their beaks open and pulsating their pouch allows cool air to flow over the pouch to cool the bird.
California brown pelicans can often be seen resting along the Dana Point breakwater and other areas within the harbor. Any Southern California harbor, pier or breakwater can pretty much guarantee you a California brown pelican sighting. They usually travel no more than 5 miles from land to search for food and are rarely found inland. These birds also prefer nesting on the more secluded Channel Islands off the California coast such as Anacapa Island and Santa Barbara Island. Prime nesting sites are usually free of predators and not often visited by humans. Primary egg laying time is around the months of March and April, but recently studies showed that egg laying can occur until late fall.
California brown pelicans can live close to 40 years old if they survive various challenges. In 1970 the California brown pelican was listed as an endangered species. The California brown pelican has had some tough times in the past especially due to DDT. DDT is a pesticide that was widely used in California that has been banned for nearly 45 years. This pesticide caused the eggshells of the California brown pelican to become very thin and easily crushed during incubation. The ban not only helped the survival of the California brown pelican, but also the bald eagle. The feathers of California brown pelicans were also once valued for use in the fashion industry and many birds were taken in the early 1900s for this use. El Nino weather patterns can also be detrimental to the California brown pelican’s food supply, warm waters can drive baitfish to areas that are out of the range of the bird. Luckily after decades of efforts in various ways to help the California brown pelican, the bird was removed from the endangered species list in 2009.