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The Brown Pelican: Reluctant Heroine of the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster


The Brown Pelican (Pelcanus Occidentalis) is described on many web sites as one of seven or eight species of pelicans with a wing span over 7 feet...

It is the smallest of all the pelicans. One of the features that make this brown bird so distinctive is its large bill; when resting, the neck bends in two places. Standing out from the pack, the Brown Pelican dives directly into the water, beak first, for its food. The habitant of the Brown Pelican is along coastal waterways.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology captured the sights and sound of the Brown Pelican.

The ecology of the Gulf Coast was probably not on many people's radar until the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As we learn more from the media, current and long term damage is clear. One of the first images I saw was the oil soaked Brown Pelican sitting on her eggs. According to reports, concerned environmentalists are not able to clean her because she is incubating eggs.

The National Audubon Society

As the disaster is unfolding, I have been surveying the latest additions to the National Audubon Society records in the Manuscripts and Archives Division, prior to arranging and describing. Incorporated in 1905, the National Audubon Society is one of the oldest non-profit conservation organizations in the United States. What brought the conservationists together was the wholesale destruction of birds for the millinery trade in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I decided to examine the National Audubon Society records, 1883-1991 (387 linear ft, 387 boxes) to see what the collection held on the Brown Pelican (Pelcanus occidentalis) and its environs. There was a single file on the pelicans and a few images in the photograph section.

This collection, complex and rich, contains historical correspondence, reports, pamphlets, guides and memorandum about the Audubon's fight to save birds, Brown Pelican. Young - first Winter, Digital ID
108688, New York Public Librarymarine mammals, waterways, establish sanctuaries and educate the public. The collection is one of many outstanding collections in the Manuscripts and Archives Division.

I also examined other resources in the NYPL and my search strategy located several images of the Brown Pelican in the Digital Gallery like the one to the right.

I located some great books about the ecology of the Gulf and more information about the Brown Pelican.

Atlantic & Gulf Coasts by William H. Amos and Stephen H. Amos. An excellent publication that offers detailed information, sketches and excellent color photographs of the marine environment and the species that depend on it. About the Brown Pelican the authors wrote:

" diver, often plunging spectaculary in pursuit of fish just beyond the breakers. Its pouch is not used to store or carry fish as is generally believed, but rather serve to separate the fish from the water."

Children would enjoy reading the delightful book Animal Survivors of the Wetlands by Barbara A. Somerville.  This book is full of large color photographs and educational information about the many species living in the wetlands. While the book is targeted towards juveniles, the text is sophisticated enough to give anyone a basic understanding of ecology. And, Chapter II is all about the Brown Pelican survival and comeback against DDT.

Another very good source of information is a two page description of the Brown Pelican available online from the Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The National Audubon Society is one of many conservation/environmental organizations involved in the fight to save the Gulf Coast. Stop by the library or visit the NYPL's website to learn about excellent resouces available to you.

This spectacular image of the Brown Pelican in action was shot at Morro State Park Marina taken on September, 09, 2008 by amateur photographer "Mike" Michael L.Baird. View Mr. Baird's other stunning images of the Brown Pelican on Flickr.


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