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Why it’s bad to feed pelicans

Plus, an expert explains how their pouches work, what to do if you catch one on a fishing hook and more.
A visitor feeds the pelicans at the Pier Bait House in St. Petersburg in 2010. [Tampa Bay Times (2010)]
A visitor feeds the pelicans at the Pier Bait House in St. Petersburg in 2010. [Tampa Bay Times (2010)]
Published Nov. 14
Updated Nov. 14

Someday I hope I love my children as much as Ann Paul loves seabirds. Working out of Tampa, she serves as regional coordinator of Audubon Florida with special attention on Florida coastal island sanctuaries. She is passionate about pelicans. I may know the poetry of pelicans — Tennessee newspaper editor, columnist, historian and humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt wrote a limerick about the birds in 1913 — but not the biology of pelicans. She was kind enough to answer my questions about our “wonderful bird.”

The poem says: A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill can hold more than his belican.” Is that true?

Yes and no. When a pelican plunge-dives, it has located a school of small fish, generally menhaden or sardines. The dive may take the pelican about 6 feet into the water. The pelican then scoops up a pouch full of water, hoping that it contains some of the fish. It can feel the frantic fish in its pouch, so it knows immediately if that plunge has been successful. If not, the pelican empties all the water out as it bobs to the surface. If there are unfortunate fish in the gallon or so of water in its pouch, it contracts the muscles in the pouch and slowly squeezes the water out, while keeping its beak mostly closed to trap the fish, and then tosses the prey to the back of its throat to swallow dinner. Water is heavy and the pelicans don’t want to swallow it.

RELATED: A love letter to pelicans, St. Pete’s unofficial bird

How does that wonderful pouch thing work?

The pouch expands to take in the water surrounding the small fish, and then the strong muscles of the pouch are used to push the water out while keeping the fish inside the mouth of the pelican.

You expressed an almost poetic affection for the bird. What are we seeing when we watch them soar and dive?

With their hollow bones, pelicans are light, exquisitely designed for flight. Gliding with few wing beats low across calmer water, they are using air currents created by their own flight to lift them along their way. In squadrons, the first pelican in line flies at its regular energy of flight while the birds in formation behind get lift from the air flowing from the leader’s wings.

Why was the bait shop at the old St. Petersburg Pier — and feeding pelicans and seabirds in general — a bad idea?

Feeding pelicans teaches them to congregate near fishing piers and fishermen, begging for fish. Being near fishermen means that the pelicans often get caught by the fish hooks or tangle in the fishing line. If the fishermen cut the line, when the pelican flies to its roost island, the line snares and the bird is doomed to a slow death from dehydration. Other birds get caught in the line after the original carcass rots, as fishing line is strong and lasts a long time in the colony, snaring bird after bird.

You say that it’s wrong for anglers to throw birds the carcass of a filleted fish?

Pelicans that eat the filleted bones of big fish often die of internal infection, as the sharp bones puncture delicate pouches, throats, stomachs or intestines. This death is very painful. So we are asking people to never feed pelicans or other seabirds. Don’t teach them to come into the “danger zone.” The “danger zone” is anywhere near the fishermen, as the pelicans and other fish predators are programmed to catch the injured prey — which will be the fish or shrimp on the fisherman’s hook. Flying near a casting fisherman can cause a bird to become entangled, as the line is deliberately designed to be hard to see, in order to fool wary fish.

What do I do if I hook a pelican?

If a fisherman accidentally catches a bird, the responsible thing to do is to free the bird from the hook or line, and let it go immediately, saving the bird from a slow and painful death. After putting on sunglasses or other eye protection, the fisherman should reel in the bird. They don’t weigh much. Securing the beak and covering the eyes quiets the bird. Folding up its wings and holding it tightly but gently will allow the fisherman and a buddy to use pliers to cut the barb off the hook, and gently slide the hook back out of the bird’s wound. Checking the bird carefully for the presence of additional fishing line or hooks, and then releasing it by pointing its head towards the water and stepping away, are the next steps. These actions will allow the bird to continue to live, a vital part of our Florida wildlife.

Please describe the work of volunteers who are trying to clear bird nesting areas of fishing lines.

Audubon volunteers have removed fishing line from bird nesting sites during the non-nesting season for decades. This important activity makes sure that the line, entangled in trees, does not kill birds again. We have known for years that fishing line was responsible for many pelicans’ deaths and injury, but it took a project undertaken at the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier to learn that over 500 pelicans a year are caught, often fatally, in line at that one pier alone.

I understand there are programs to educate anglers.

Education of the fishermen at that pier reduced the numbers of birds caught significantly. As fishermen stopped feeding the pelicans, herons and other birds, they stopped hanging around the pier. Fishermen taught other fishermen how to reel in entangled birds, saving hundreds from death. Covering bait buckets and proper trash disposal in covered garbage cans also reduced bird feeding on the pier. Not feeding these seabirds — ever — is an easy solution, protects birds from being hurt and does a lot to help our local pelican and seabird populations continue to fly for years to come.

In general, how are brown pelicans doing in Florida as a species? Do they need protection?

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have recently taken the brown pelican off the endangered species lists. But these birds are still vulnerable from human-caused impacts. Healthy populations of bait and other small fish are needed for pelicans to successfully raise their young. Birds need protection at the nesting colonies from disturbance. Well known is their vulnerability to pesticide poisoning, so measures that reduce chemical pollution, which also protect human lives, are an obvious priority.

Isn’t Louisiana, not Florida, the “Pelican State"?

Interestingly enough, all the pelicans in Louisiana were killed by pesticides and even Texas was down to less than 10 pairs. Thousands of pelicans live there now, as pesticide use has been reduced and waterways have been restored, but it’s good to know that the birds that live there now are the descendants of birds from Florida, mostly from the Tampa Bay area, taken there by bird biologists to restore those populations.

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