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What it's like to band a brown pelican - August 25, 2011

Leaving from a tiny boat ramp at the southern end of Worcester County, a crew of ten set out on two boats across the Chincoteague Bay. Only three had any experience banding pelicans but one has nearly more experience than anyone, anywhere. Dave Brinker has been banding pelicans for over twenty-five years. Over the last two decades, most of the brown pelicans banded in this region have been in the Chesapeake Bay. But for the last two years, and after a long absence, brown pelican populations have been increasing in the coastal bays.

As the boats approach the island, the adult pelicans begin to lift off the nests. The island, which once appeared contiguous, has become segmented over the last decade largely because of sea level rise. The only vegetation on the island is marsh grass. No trees. No shrubs. Just marsh grass. Tiny islands like this provide valuable nesting habitat in the coastal bays. This particular island is filled with 136 nests, clumped together in three distinct groups. Each nest, built on the ground here, is a couple feet across and a couple feet high. They are constructed with large sticks, many nearly an inch in diameter. Remember, there are no trees or shrubs on the island. So every stick used in each of those 136 nests had to be flown in, across the Chincoteague Bay, by a pelican.

Pelicans spend a lot of their time in the water, so they are kind of oily. They eat only fish, so they smell fishy. And the nesting colony and all of the nests are “whitewashed,” which is the polite way of saying they are covered with bird poop. The smell is unlike anything you’ve probably smelled before. An acrid stench of an oily-fishy-poopy combination. Oh, and, if you’re lucky, the older pelicans will regurgitate warm, partially digested fish on you. And it’s hot out there, so the smell sort of bakes into you. It’s strong. And it stays with you for hours after you’ve left the island, scrubbed and showered, and put on clean clothes. It seems, somehow, to linger in your nasal cavity as a reminder of the experience.

So, how does one band a pelican? Timing is everything. After monitoring the island for weeks, Dave Brinker sends out word to the crew – the majority of the birds are ready – big enough to band but not big enough to fly away. They aren’t quite ready to “fledge,” or leave the nest. As a group, the crew carefully approaches, doing everything they can to minimize disturbance. After the adults lift off the nests, they settle atop the bay – floating until the banding crew is done. A couple people reach into the nests to grab the birds. Any bird that is larger than a football is usually big enough to band. Some are much larger than that. As you approach, they squawk loudly, thrust their necks out, and snap their huge beaks in an attempt to intimidate. It’s best not to hesitate. Just reach in, deliberately grab the bird the beak with one hand, use the other hand to secure both wings, close to the body, and hand the bird out to someone. Then, there is a line of people, birds in hand, ready for the bander. The bander has a string of sequentially-numbered aluminum bands on a string around his neck. Each number is unique – like a social security number. With pliers, the bander removes a band from the string and gently secures it around the right leg of the pelican. The band must be crimped in such a way that it does not abrade the skin of the bird, cannot slide off, and will not become entangled in anything.

Simone Nemes, a Coastal Steward who first assisted with pelican banding in the Chesapeake noted, “at first, it’s really scary to grab a pelican by its beak. It’s intimidating. But once you do it, you realize the birds are very soft and warm. And their eyes are really pretty. It’s magnificent to see them up close.”

Coastal Steward Joe Dorman noted that the pelicans are especially awkward and unwieldy. “It’s not easy to handle a pelican. You have to have a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to just go in and grab it,” said Joe. “It’s an impressive thing to see.” Given the option, he would probably not choose to do it again.

“But when you touch them, you can feel their heartbeat. You feel compassion. You want them to be healthy. You want to protect them and their habitat,” noted Josh Moore, a third year Coastal Stewards and a recent graduate of Wicomico Senior High School.

On banding day, most of the chicks were four to five weeks old. They were close to the size of an adult pelican but still covered in soft, white down, their flight feathers just starting to come in. There were also chicks just hatching out. A newly-hatched pelican would easily fit in the palm of your hand. They’re tiny, naked, and a blueish-purplish color. Proportionately, their heads are huge and their tiny necks aren’t strong enough to hold them up. On average, each nest can produce 2-3 eggs. The crew of ten banded 147 chicks in a couple hours. A few will go back in three weeks or so to band the rest.

This is the most productive year brown pelicans have ever had in the coastal bays. We’re excited about that.

Check out pictures of pelican banding on the Coastal Steward’s Facebook page (just search Coastal Stewards). If you’re interested in learning more about the diversity of wildlife in the coastal bays, please visit www.mdcoastalbays.org.

 

Carrie Samis is the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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