Please Don’t Feed the Pelicans
Brown pelicans, due to their social nature, become dependent on discarded fish and fish scraps. The birds will often congregate in places where the scraps are readily available and rely on the scraps as a major source of food.
In places where fish scraps are available, such as at fish processing facilities or fish markets, the pelicans will arrive day after day to eat, becoming habituated, according to FWC biologists.
“Pelicans can become so used to their daily “free” meals that they won’t migrate south during the winter, and as a result become sick, suffer frostbite on their feet or die as a result of exposure,” said James Rodgers, a research biologist at the FWC’s Gainesville Laboratory.
Another problem arises at fishing piers or other spots where people are cleaning fish or where fishermen toss the birds a few fish from time to time. The large bones left over after filleting a fish can get stuck in the throat of the pelican, eventually choking or starving the bird.
“Hanging out at the piers can develop into a further problem when pelicans get caught with fishing hooks while trying to steal fish directly from the fishing line. It’s not unusual to see a pelican with a hook embedded in its pouch and fishing line trailing behind it,” Rodgers said.
Embedded hooks can cause the soft skin of the bird’s pouch to tear. Such injuries can sometimes become infected, which can lead to sickness and weakness. In extreme cases, the bird may die from illness or from starvation because it weakens to the point where it can’t get enough food.
These concerns led FWC staff and other experts to conclude these “free meals” were affecting the overall health of brown pelican populations.
“To counter this problem, the Commission passed a rule that is intended to stop the feeding of large numbers of pelicans. This rule is considered necessary to maintain healthy wild populations of brown pelicans in Florida,” Rodgers said.
The new rule states that the intentional feeding or the placement of food that attracts pelicans and modifies the natural behavior of the pelican so as to be detrimental to the survival or health of a local population is prohibited.
It is no longer permitted under this rule to dump or discharge large amounts of fish scraps, bycatch or comparable materials from a fish house or similar facility which attracts large numbers of pelicans to that area and causes changes in the behavior of the pelicans. Though indirectly feeding the pelicans, such large scale activities can have a detrimental effect on a brown pelican population by inhibiting migration and leading to cold weather induced illness and injury.
Under the new rule, it is no longer permissible for organized groups of people or organizations to feed groups of pelicans at regular places and regular times when the pelicans are not restrained or not directly under their care.
Public fishing piers and beaches which attract large groups of fishermen may want to consider creating scrap chutes where folks can dump the leftovers to keep them out of the way of pelicans.
The intent of this rule is not to regulate the occasional or the casual feeding of individual pelicans. Individuals who are out fishing and happen to hand a scrap to a begging pelican will not be cited for their behavior. This rule provides an enforcement tool to resolve situations when large scale feeding could negatively influence the health or survival of a pelican.
“However, you can help keep pelican populations healthy by not feeding them. One person feeding a pelican one fish may not harm the bird, but problems do occur because usually there are many people feeding that same pelican every day,” Rodgers said.
Another way to help is to use fish scrap repositories at piers and docks, if they are available. If they are not available, discard your fish scraps in a garbage can or at home.
“Your efforts will help keep pelican populations wild,” Rodgers said.
Brown pelicans in Florida
Brown pelicans are large, shore-dwelling birds, about 48 inches long, with a 6-7 foot wingspan. They weigh in at about 8 pounds. They are strong swimmers and graceful flyers, but are rather clumsy on land. They are long-lived — the oldest individual on record died at 43 years of age. Pelicans can be seen along coasts from North to South America.
Pelicans are fish-eating birds. They have excellent eyesight and hunt by searching for schools of small bait fish while flying over the ocean, sometimes as high as 50 feet. When they see fish, they will dive steeply into the water, often submerging completely, and capture the fish in their large throat pouches.
Pelicans are highly social birds that often congregate in large flocks throughout much of the year. They also breed in large colonies, which may consist of several hundred pairs, nesting in bushes, or in trees, usually on small estuarine islands where they can be free from disturbance from terrestrial predators. Nests are typically little more than a shallow depression built from grass or reeds, over interwoven sticks on supporting tree branches. Along the East Coast of the United States, pelicans nest from South Carolina to Florida (both coasts) and in Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas across the Gulf. In southern Florida, nesting often begins in the fall, but nesting farther north doesn’t begin until late winter or spring, with peak egg-laying often occurring in March and April. Pelicans usually lay two to three eggs that hatch in approximately one month. Like many birds, newly hatched pelicans are featherless and completely dependent upon their parents. Each young pelican usually requires about 50 pounds of food and about 75 days to reach the point of fledging, or first flight.
Because of their size, pelicans are usually conspicuous and are often a common fixture at marinas and fishing piers and can be counted on to panhandle for food from the often compliant fishermen.
The brown pelican nearly disappeared from North America between the 1950s and early 1970s because of pesticides in use at the time. The run-off containing those pesticides entered rivers and eventually the ocean, which then contaminated the fish. The pelicans fed on the fish which led to a build-up of the pesticides in the birds. Many died. In addition, the pesticides caused the surviving individuals to lay thin-shelled eggs that often would be crushed under the weight of the incubating birds.
The brown pelican was placed on the endangered species list in 1970. Following the ban on DDT in 1972, the reproduction rates of the pelicans significantly improved. As a result, pelicans were taken off the endangered species list in the southeast United States in 1985 and by the 1990s, pelican populations had returned to pre-DDT levels. The brown pelican is a success story for conservationists everywhere.