Once teetering on the brink of extinction, California brown pelicans are now flourishing along the Golden State’s seashore. They’re commonly seen along our scenic coastline and especially the offshore Channel Islands archipelago, majestically gliding above the ocean, or roosting on guano-covered rocks.  

As of Nov. 11, they were delisted from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species List. Pelicans are great indicators of how healthy ocean environments are. They are one of the most recognizable creatures on mainland beaches with their long, sword-like beaks as they dive headfirst into the ocean to fill their pouches full of anchovies   
The Endangered Species Act passed in 1970. The brown pelican was listed three years before that. Nearly wiped out by DDT pesticides and habitat loss, the ungainly birds — noted for their triangular flight formations — were affected nationwide and along the coasts of the Caribbean, Central and South America.  Brown pelicans along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines were delisted back in 1985.

“The legal protections provided by the Endangered Species Act, coupled with the banning of DDT in 1972, provided the means for the Service and its partners to accelerate the pelican’s recovery,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall. “State wildlife agencies, universities, private ornithological groups and individuals participated in reintroduction efforts and helped protect nest sites during breeding season.”

The Channel Islands National Park, and especially Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands, are the primary rookeries of California brown pelicans on the west coast of the United States, due to their dry, secure and quiet roosting and nesting places. In 1970, only one chick out of 550 nests survived. However, over the past decade, their populations have rebounded to historic levels. Above the sheer 300-foot-high cliffs on West Anacapa Island, the annual average has been 4,600 nesting pairs. In 2004, the Anacapa breeding population peaked at nearly 8,000 nesting pairs. To the south, on tiny Santa Barbara Island, there has been an annual average of about 1,500 nesting pairs, with an estimated high of 4,000 nests in 2006. Pelicans on that island nest in different spots. A couple of years ago they took up nesting at Landing Cove, the only place for visitors to get on the island. The tiniest island off California was shut down until breeding and nesting season was over.

“The recovery of the brown pelican is a tremendous milestone for conservation in our country,” said Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau. “This species has been safeguarded by the Endangered Species Act, as well as being sheltered in the national park, on remote rock outcroppings and islands that provide undisturbed nesting and roosting habitat.”

Toxins like DDT caused pelicans to lay thin-shelled eggs that were crushed during the incubation process. Other birds of note affected this way include raptors like peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Bald eagles were removed from the Endangered Species List a year ago, but the majestic raptors are still trying to re-colonize the rugged archipelago after a 50-year absence. Bald eagles are at the top of the food chain and are still experiencing the effects of DDT.

“But there [are] still 30 bald eagles on the islands,” said Tim Coonan, terrestrial biologist for the NPS.

The delisting of brown pelicans means federal agencies no longer need to consider effects from approving developments like roads, because brown pelicans have rebounded so well after being listed for 40 years. However, with DDT still in the ecosystem, scientists will continue to monitor population levels.