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Wild Thing - Plucky Pelicans

Awkward on land but graceful in flight, the once-threatened brown pelican is now thriving on the Texas Coast.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Though nearly wiped out in Texas half a century ago, brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) have made a spectacular comeback along the coast, thanks to the ban on the pesticide DDT and strong protection by state and federal agencies.

"They're one of our best success stories," says Phil Glass, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Houston. "In 2007, we counted almost 5,000 breeding pairs on 12 islands along the Texas coast."

"Peculiar" aptly describes the scrawny-necked, long-billed seabirds with flabby pouches. Aloft, though, brown pelicans soar gracefully in search of menhaden, mullet and other small fish near the water's surface. Upon spotting a target, a brown pelican folds its wings halfway back and hurtles headfirst into the water. At impact, the bird's pouch opens and scoops up its catch, including several pints of water.

Back upright on the water, a pelican drains off the water and swallows the fish. Sometimes scavenging gulls hover over pelicans and even perch on their heads, waiting to snatch a meal.

Brown pelicans nest in large colonies on coastal islands, where they build nests both on the ground and in shrubs. Both parents incubate the eggs with their webbed feet. (Ingestion of DDT in the 1960s produced thin-shelled eggs that broke beneath the parents.)

At the turn of the century, brown pelicans struggled for survival when the fashion industry exploited their feathers. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the first federal bird reservation: Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

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