State rescues pelicans in Southern Maryland that failed to migrate for winter
Saturday, January 9, 2010
This is the lesson of the frozen pelicans of Southern Maryland: It is one thing to believe in natural selection.
It is another thing to watch it.
This week, as a curtain of bitter cold descended on the region, about 40 brown pelicans were spotted -- starving, freezing and in danger of dying -- on a wind-blasted shoreline in St. Mary's County. They weren't supposed to be there: The birds, relatively new arrivals on the Chesapeake Bay, usually migrate south to escape mid-Atlantic winters.
But these birds didn't get the message. They stayed behind.
At the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, officials knew the normal thing to do would be to leave the birds to an ugly, frigid fate. In the wild, after all, evolution doesn't give mulligans.
But this week, most of the birds were rescued by the state, and they're waiting out the winter in a Delaware shelter that provides heat and therapeutic foot baths.
Their story, as it turns out, tells us as much about people as it does about pelicans.
"Scientifically, biologically, you might not take action" to save the birds, said David Heilmeier, an official with the Department of Natural Resources. "A lot of it is driven by the public's desire [not] to see wildlife out there suffering. . . . Just letting them sit out there and die is not an option for us."
The explanation of how the state bird of Louisiana came to be huddled in snow outside a Maryland seafood restaurant is above all a tale of success.
The brown pelican, which dive-bombs schools of fish and scoops them in the pouch under its beak, nearly disappeared from its heartland on the Gulf Coast. The birds' eggshells had been fatally weakened by traces of the pesticide DDT. Adults were slaughtered by commercial fishermen trying to protect their catch.
But then DDT was banned, and the pelican was protected as an endangered species in 1970. Like the better-known bald eagle, the pelican came soaring back. It officially came off the protected list in the fall.
As part of that recovery, the pelican has spread north to the Chesapeake. The first nest in Maryland was spotted in 1987. Two decades later, 2,000 pelicans nest in the central Chesapeake every summer, according to Maryland officials.