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St. Petersburg makes the brown pelican the official city bird

The Brown Pelican was endangered in the 1980s. Now it’s numbers are steady, but threats still exist around the Tampa Bay area.
Two Brown Pelicans rest on dock pilings in Tampa Bay near Brightwaters Boulevard Northeast in St. Petersburg.
Two Brown Pelicans rest on dock pilings in Tampa Bay near Brightwaters Boulevard Northeast in St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2017) ]
Published Jan. 9, 2020
Updated Jan. 9, 2020

It looked like a pterodactyl, diving into the water with steely determination.

Roy Peter Clark had never seen anything like it before. When the Brown Pelican came up from the waters by Pass-a-Grille, Clark thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen. Cool enough to ignore that he thought the city of St. Petersburg, in 1977, was a dump.

Maybe it’d be nice to live by the water, he thought.

On Thursday morning, nearly 43 years after Clark took a job at the then-St. Petersburg Times, he stood in front of the city council with a resolution declaring the Brown Pelican the official bird of the city. The council unanimously voted in favor of it.

Clark, now retired, said he had always assumed the pelican was the official bird of the city. It adorns recycling bins, trash cans and has been in the city’s logo since the 1980s. But a search run by Wayne Atherholt, from the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, showed the city never had an official bird.

Clark wanted to turn what was in the hearts and minds of city residents into something official, he said.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who presented members of the council and Clark with a framed photo of a flying pelican, joked that the crane could be the official bird of the city because of all the construction. (Over in Tampa, which does not have an official bird, Mayor Jane Castor often makes the same joke about her city).

Pelicans sit on posts along Boca Ciega Bay in Pass-a-Grille.
Pelicans sit on posts along Boca Ciega Bay in Pass-a-Grille. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“No matter how high we build the skyline of St. Petersburg the pelican will always soar above it,” Clark said.

A new sculpture coming to the renovated pier - a large, origami style red pelican - had him thinking about the bird again and reminded him of a famous limerick, which he had the city council recite with him.

“A wonderful bird is the pelican,” Clark, reciting the work of Dixon Lanier Merritt, said. “His bill will hold more than his belican.”

Though it started as fun, Clark said he learned more about the dangers Brown Pelicans face.

Ann Paul, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Coordinator of Audubon Florida, said they’ve documented about 500 pelicans a year caught in fishing line. There’s also the issue of people feeding pelicans. Throwing them the bones of fish can be especially harmful, Paul said, because it can puncture their mouths and open them up to infection.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, pelicans were in trouble, Paul said. Now, they’re no longer listed as endangered. And when the pelican population in Louisiana nearly died out because of toxic chemicals in the water, pelicans from the Tampa Bay region were shipped over to repopulate the area.

“The pelican story is one of the more inspiring stories of the Endangered Species Act that we have," Paul said. “That’s why I think it’s so fun and so wonderful that the city of St. Petersburg has adopted the pelican as its city bird.”

Paul’s favorite spots to see pelicans dive into the water and grab a meal are Fort De Soto Park and the Courtney Campbell trail. She likes to keep an eye out for their tails wagging when they’ve snagged a fish.

Dan Savercool, a marine biologist and the president of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, likes to see the pelicans in his backyard in Coquina Key while he and his wife enjoy a night cap.

The number of small islands around St. Petersburg where mangroves flourish makes a great environment for the pelican, he said. It gives them room for nests and keeps them removed from the mass population. He hopes them becoming the official city bird will bring more attention to problems pelicans still face, like being fed and getting caught in fishing lines.

But mostly, he said it completes the image of St. Petersburg.

“One of the things you always sit and marvel at is how brown pelicans are skimming right over the surface of the water on a nice sunny, breezy day at the beach,” he said.

A brown pelican soars over the intracoastal waterway while feedling off George McGough Nature Park in Largo. The large, stocky birds are expert divers and can grow to 54-inches long with a wingspan of 90 inches.
A brown pelican soars over the intracoastal waterway while feedling off George McGough Nature Park in Largo. The large, stocky birds are expert divers and can grow to 54-inches long with a wingspan of 90 inches. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2009) ]
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, left, and Roy Peter Clark.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, left, and Roy Peter Clark. [ City of St. Petersburg ]