As Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican’s image appears on the state flag and is stenciled on state vehicles. It also perches atop state letterhead and it’s carved, etched and painted into every possible nook of the state capitol. Recently, however, there’s reason to cheer for the one place the bird won’t be found any longer: the federal government’s endangered species list. 

Brought to the brink of extinction by man, the brown pelican has staged a dramatic comeback in population and range as its numbers have proliferated around the South. Late in 2009, the government recognized the recovery by taking the bird off the endangered species list for all areas, including Louisiana.

“We once again see healthy flocks of pelicans in the air over our shores,” said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks with the U.S. Department of the Interior while visiting the New Orleans area for the official delisting announcement.

“After being hunted for its feathers, facing devastating effects from the pesticide DDT and suffering from widespread coastal habitat loss, the pelican has made a remarkable recovery.”

The brown pelican has been the state bird since 1958, but it has been associated with Louisiana for centuries. Its struggle for survival has been a long haul as well.

President Theodore Roosevelt created America’s first National Wildlife Refuge at Pelican Island in Florida in 1903 to protect the birds from hunters seeking their feathers for the fashion industry. Another grave threat came with the advent of the pesticide known as DDT. The chemical was so effective in controlling mosquitoes and cutting down on malaria that its creator was awarded a Nobel Prize. But in 1962, the biologist Rachel Carson documented the dangers of unrestricted and unexamined pesticide use in her landmark book Silent Spring. The book detailed how pelicans exposed to DDT produced thinner eggs shells, which typically would break before the young could hatch, killing the offspring. Though highly controversial at the time, Silent Spring is now credited with sparking the popular environmental movement and led to the federal ban on DDT in 1972.

At the announcement of the pelican’s delisting, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu likened the bird’s recovery to the ongoing struggle to save Louisiana from coastal erosion. 

“Louisiana’s future,” Landrieu said, “can be a success story of balancing resources and responsibility.”

– Ian McNulty