In 1968, fifty years ago, a group of biologists in boats headed to Queen Bess Island in Barataria Bay near Grand Isle. On board were some brown pelican chicks that had been imported from Florida to not only begin a new life in Louisiana but to restore what once was.
Though the pelican was Louisiana’s state bird it was extinct by 1968 mostly due to the since banned pesticide DDT that was used for spraying crops. Not only did it kill plant critters but also the runoff damaged the pelican hatching sites.
Because Queen Bess Island had once been an important nesting spot for the birds, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) chose it as the nursery to raise a new population. Beginning in 1968, through 1976, 767 brown pelican chicks were brought from Florida’s Atlantic coast and relocated in Louisiana especially on Queen Bess. According to a LDWF statement, by 1971 eleven nests were documented on the island signaling that the relocation was successful. Forty years later, by 2008 there were 4,000 nests on the island. A year later the brown pelican was removed from the federal endangered species list.
This tale would have a happy ending except that there have been some problems along the way. Queen Bess has experienced subsidence though the years and its nesting area has decreased. Also it was heavily damaged by the BP oil spill. The island, which is the hatching ground for ten species of birds including pelicans, provided sad images of its feathered residents exposed to oil. Curiously, through the effort of the Coastal Protection and Resonation Authority there has been a positive development. The disaster funding from the BP oil spill (The National Resources Damage assessment) will be used partially to restore the island and to increase nesting habitats. A restoration project is scheduled to begin next year.
Here we pause to wax on briefly about pelicans because there are few sights in the aviary world more graceful than a pelican gliding over open water close enough to see what is below. Suddenly the tranquility is broken by the bird taking a plunge then rocketing back through its splash to resume its peaceful glide only now its bill richer by one fish.
We remember seeing pelicans standing on stumps in the Bucktown Harbor in late 2005, a sure sign of their return. Than along came Katrina and the pelicans, like all birds, took flight. Now they can be seen again. In many ways the state bird is a sign of the state’s health. We celebrate this being the 50th anniversary of the birds’ return. Once again the pelican has made a big splash.