Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Brown Pelican Banding at Atlantic, NC

The star east of Atlantic, NC is the approximate location of the island where the Brown Pelican banding took place

Timing is everything when banding colonial birds. To efficiently band Brown Pelicans you have to be aware of some key timing facts.

After the female Brown Pelicans lay two or three eggs both parents incubate them for around thirty days. The babies hatch looking like little purple/pink Pterodactyls. Then they are fed and given whatever parenting Brown Pelicans do for seventy-one to eighty-eight days when the chicks fledge. Shortly after their first flight they start earning their own living.

It is important to pick a banding time when these new chicks are old enough to be gently handled. Too young and a band will not fit on their small legs, or worse yet they may simply go into shock and die. Too old and they are strong and rambunctious. So, before a gang capable of banding thousands of birds is assembled someone must go into the colony and assess the timing.

Word that the timing was right had been sent to fifteen plus people. Two boats would be required.

July 1, 2008, at 7:00am

Today I met a group led by long time bird banders, John Weske and Micou Browne, at a boat landing behind Drum Inlet Seafood in Atlantic, NC. The group had gathered to band baby Brown Pelicans on an island in Core Sound roughly halfway between new Drum Inlet and Atlantic, NC. This island is closed to the public from April through August and the group leaders hold federal and state permits to band birds. They also have been granted a special permit from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission band birds on this and others of a special group of islands that the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has designated as a sanctuary for nesting colonial waterbirds.

Micou Browne and Dr. Peter Hertl loading a boat at the Drum Inlet Seafood landing

We loaded the two boats up with people bands, pliers and lots of water. Then we motored across the Core Sound. As we pulled up in the boat to our destination island, here’s how the island looked.

Because there were Black Skimmers and other shore birds nesting on the sandy low parts of this island, we carefully circled around along the wet edge of the shoreline.

In my path was this beautiful freshly dead octopus lying on the wet sand.

We walked around the perimeter of the island to the opposite side where there was an area low enough that we could climb up and have access to the central high ground portion of the island where the pelican rookery was located.

Just before we got to our entrance area Micou Browne spotted a Great Black-back Gull baby. The big chick had apparently fallen off the tidal ledge and it was hiding in a crevice along the bank.

John Weske stopped the group at the foot of the entrance area to the higher ground and talked a bit about the plan for what we were doing and then gave out assignments.

Together we then climbed up on the high portion of the island and there they were - Brown Pelicans galore!

A pair of Brown Pelican eggs on the nest

Freshly hatched Brown Pelican babies

Our task was now to carefully circle a section of the pelican rookery and cut out a group of babies. Some of our group were assigned to put bands on birds and others were assigned to capture birds and hold them for the persons banding.

A couple of small groups “cut out” for banding

I had a turn at both tasks. To capture a bird you had to grab and control a bird gently enough not to hurt them. There are several methods. The most used method was to hold the bird first by the bill. The sharp tip is the part that may scratch you if you do not have it under control. Then you hold both of the bird's wings by the wing joints closest to the bird’s back while supporting the bird from below -sometime with a hip, knee or leg. You then present the right foot to the person banding. The bander uses a special pair of pliers to fasten the bands in place.

When banding you have to first get the right leg into position to place a specially sized (for Brown Pelicans) band between the toes and the first joint. Then the bands are then squeezed tight with pliers until the two band ends butt together tightly, but do not overlap. The baby is then released with its new jewelry.

Squeezing on a band

In all, we banded seven hundred and seventy baby Brown Pelicans and were finished around 1:00pm. With two parents per bird and considering we probably missed some sneaky babies, there must have been well over two thousand birds on this island of just a couple of acres.

I have been thinking about how Brown Pelicans faced extinction from DDT poisoning in the early 1970's when there were probably fewer than fifteen viable breeding pairs toughing it out in North Carolina. Unfortunately for the Brown Pelican, one of their unusual behaviors is to stand on their eggs and wrap them with their webbed feet to incubate them rather than warm their eggs with the skin of their breasts like most other birds. If you take a look at their nests of hard sticks and shells, and then picture the incubating parent standing on top of the fragile eggs, it is not hard to understand why so very few eggs were hatched. This peculiar incubation method made them vulnerable to the effects of the pesticide DDT since the DDT made the eggshells thin. As a result, the incubating parents frequently cracked their eggs. In fact, it astonishes me that they could incubate the eggs even with thick strong eggshells.

In future posts, I intend to write more about banding and observing other coastal North Carolina birds and more about the people banding them.

One question on which I would like to invite comment is whether the anthropomorphism we project to these birds and other creatures is a good or bad thing. I hear other people banding (and I do it myself) talking to the birds - cooing trying to keep them calm.

Marie Winn in her book, Red-Tails in Love, asks some interesting questions about this subject along these lines:

- doesn't evolution show that all human characteristics with survival value have precedents in the phylogenetic past?

- don't such supremely human properties as reasoning ability and emotional complexity evolve over time? Surely they don't spring forth fully evolved?

The notion that only humans think and feel surely is a relic of Creationism - a Victorian notion.

Chime in and tell me what you think!

Nature is both beautiful and cruel. All of the baby Brown Pelicans don’t make it.

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