Once wiped out in Louisiana, pelican populations come roaring back

Triplets nest on an island in Barataria Bay this spring
Triplets nest on an island in Barataria Bay this spring

Raccoon Island, La. -- Not so long ago, along the necklaces of sand that form the Louisiana coast, the state symbol vanished.

The Louisiana Brown Pelican essentially went extinct.

On the barrier islands, where tens of thousands of birds had once nested, the pelicans disappeared.

It was possible to grow up in South Louisiana and never see a brown pelican.

Biologists blamed pesticides for softening the eggs, turning nests into omelets. Eggs cracked under the weight of adults.

However, over the last half a century, pelicans have exploded in population.

Mike Carloss, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, estimates as many as 8,000 pelicans nested on Raccoon Island this spring.

Along a coast where the storyline often reads negative, the pelican's recovery lifts the spirit.

How did they come back?

Beginning in 1963, the state started importing pelicans from Florida to repopulate the species.

In 1984, biologists brought 50 birds from Florida to Raccoon Island, or 1/16th of the population now in place there alone.

Federal officials announced late in 2009 that they were removing the brown pelican from the endangered species list, capping a century-long recovery

Ironically, the federal government pulled the pelicans from the Endangered Species List only a few months before BP's Macondo well exploded.  The pelican became the poster child of the 2010 Gulf oil spill, but the birds face an even longer-term threat that gets less attention from the media.

Of the half-dozen large colonies in the Louisiana -- those boasting 1,000 birds or more -- Carloss says most suffer serious erosion.  As islands erode, the state is actively involved in efforts to move the pelicans to more stable real estate.

However, the birds have their own ideas. They will stubbornly return to the spot where they were born. Never mind that "home" might be slipping into the Gulf of Mexico, Carloss says the birds are very "imprinted on their natal island."

At the southern end of Barataria Bay, Plaquemines Parish has documented hundreds of cases of nests failing this spring.

The pelicans recovery inspires hope, but their long-term viability may depend on whether the state succeeds in salvaging the ribbons of sand and mangrove trees that the birds prefer.