Alameda Wildlife: The Brown Pelican

Rick Lewis    A brown pelican dives for a meal off the shores of Alameda in San Francisco Bay.

The California brown pelican is the smallest of nine pelican species worldwide, but remains easy to see and identify. They entertain us with amazing plunge dives from as high as 60 to 70 feet when foraging for fish. They use a 7-foot wingspan to soar barely above the water for much longer than what seems possible. Breeding season becomes clear when their gular pouch turns from dull brown to bright red and eyes turn from brownish to baby blue. Wonderful, indeed.

Winter is our pelicans’ nesting season. They are rare here then because they are raising young on the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara or on islands further south off the coast of Baja. Nests are on the ground, low shrubs and trees and sometimes cliffs. They usually return to Alameda in late April with numbers increasing, sometimes in waves numbering in the thousands, by late June and diminishing by early winter.

The breakwater island aka Rock Wall at Alameda Point has important components for an ideal pelican roost during the non-breeding season. The breakwater is an island with little disturbance. At a half mile long it is large enough to host thousands of birds. Pelicans are social, traveling in large groups. The breakwater also serves young birds learning essential social and other life important skills. We often see them hanging out together. And though pelicans will go to the coast to forage, they value fish close to the roost as well.

We’ve counted just short of 9,000 pelicans on the Rock Wall more than once and see only the north side when counting from shore. Same-day, same-time pelican evening roost counts from Mexican to Canadian borders by US Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon in May and September have shown that Alameda has ranked with numbers surpassing all others in both September counts to date. 

These numbers tell researchers that Alameda’s Rock Wall is a significant, if not a critical, location for pelicans. Seeing the silhouettes, of sometimes hundreds in one group, flying in aerial parades as the sun sets is an unforgettable experience.  It is clear that our pelicans know exactly where they’re going, even in the dark, when the wall is barely visible. Destination Alameda!

Brown pelicans are about 4 feet long and weigh a little more than 8 pounds when healthy. Males are slightly larger than females. They lay one to three whitish eggs requiring 28 to 30 days to incubate. Hatchlings will take near 88 days to fledge. Females will not reach breeding age for at least three years and males can take up to five.

Disturbances often force pelicans to flush and collide on rocks in ways that cause injury. Boats and kayaks that pass the breakwater too close can cause harm. A salute to the ferries for slowing down when they pass the breakwater in the channel. Their wake will not wash sleeping birds from lower rocks or disturb birds bathing near the rocks. Pelicans are also vulnerable to fishing tackle. Calling International Bird Rescue at (707) 207-0380 for help after entanglement will save lives.

Brown pelicans received endangered status with the creation of the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1970. DDT was causing problems for pelicans and others, resulting in soft eggshells that didn’t allow embryos to mature. Banning DDT allowed for recovery. In 2009 with some scientific controversy, endangered status was lifted. Already, there were signs of failing fisheries and concern about climate conditions impacting them. Declining pelican numbers have scientists continuing to study the reasons why. As with so many bird species, a total understanding of their needs and risks requires international cooperation. The California Brown Pelican has scientists from U.S. and Mexico working to gather details that will give us a fuller understanding of the needs and risks for pelicans that take a detour from their coastal path to spend time in Alameda.

Remember the limerick written by Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910?

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak, enough food for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

The bill holds up to three times what the “belican.” That’s three gallons.

To learn more about efforts to protect native birds and how to help the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve with bird habitat issues, go to Golden Gate Audubon’s website, www.goldengateaudubon.org.

Leora Feeney is a volunteer with the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Richard Bangert    California brown pelicans gather along the breakwater during sundown at Alameda Point.