Objects with Stories: One Brown Pelican

Two pelican species are found in Monterey County: the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) and the California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). Each is represented by a life-mounted specimen at the PG Museum of Natural History.

Two pelican species are found in Monterey County: the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) and the California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). Each is represented by a life-mounted specimen at the PG Museum of Natural History.

Today’s object with a story is a pelican. To be more precise, it’s the taxidermy mount of a California brown pelican. At what point in its life and after-life did it become an object? While touching lightly on that philosophical question, I’ve undertaken a search for the identity of this particular pelican—and through it find threads leading to the story of its species.
The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History displays about 300 bird species, making ours one of the largest single-county bird collections exhibited in the nation. The overall bird collection has been amassed over the past 100 years with contributions from noted bird taxidermists such as Rollo Beck. He collected and mounted our white pelican in 1949. 


Our database records don’t indicate who collected the California brown pelican, nor when, but it makes an appearance in a news article published in 1936.

Question: What’s wrong with this picture? Answer: In the 1930s, probably nothing. Today a museum wouldn’t allow its specimen to be taken outside and touched with un-gloved hands. Not only are sunlight and sweaty hands bad for taxidermy preservation, the specimen was likely prepared with arsenic—not something the young woman would have benefitted from touching.  

Question: What’s wrong with this picture? Answer: In the 1930s, probably nothing. Today a museum wouldn’t allow its specimen to be taken outside and touched with un-gloved hands. Not only are sunlight and sweaty hands bad for taxidermy preservation, the specimen was likely prepared with arsenic—not something the young woman would have benefitted from touching.  


At some time prior to June of 1936, then, a California brown pelican passed from its existence in life to its existence as an exhibit specimen. The irony of taxidermy is that it requires the death of an animal before it is revitalized into a permanent, life-like pose. This individual was killed and mounted in order to represent its species, but what was the status of the local pelican population before then?


The late 18th and early 19th century hobby of egg-collecting (“oology”) may have had some impact on the brown pelicans, as it did on all wild birds. After the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was passed in 1918, however, it became illegal “to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird.” From that date forward, any collections had (and have) to be made with permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Might we assume the California brown pelican population was in good shape after the MBTA? 


Historic clues suggest it was. In 1927 a local ornithologist, Laidlaw Williams, reported his discovery of California brown pelicans breeding and nesting on a small island off Point Lobos. 

This is the first-ever photo of a California brown pelican nest near Point Lobos, published by Laidlaw Williams in a 1927 issue of The Condor. (Laidlaw Williams later helped to found the Monterey Audubon Society and served as its first president.)

This is the first-ever photo of a California brown pelican nest near Point Lobos, published by Laidlaw Williams in a 1927 issue of The Condor. (Laidlaw Williams later helped to found the Monterey Audubon Society and served as its first president.)


The robust California brown pelican population of early 20th-century Monterey likely existed because of a healthy fish population. Beginning with the first cannery in 1908, fish canning and reduction in Monterey boomed – together with the sardine population. By 1925 the sardine fishery was the largest on the west coast. Lots of sardines, or anchovies, means lots of pelicans. 


When the sardine fishery collapsed in the 1960s, so too did the California brown pelican population. No doubt less prey means fewer predators, but the simultaneous and ultimate cause of the brown pelicans’ near extinction was the agricultural pesticide DDT. 

Brown pelicans are opportunistic feeders, and they make astonishing plunge dives for fish. These two short videos show Monterey Bay pelicans feeding in very different ways:

 


The breakdown products of DDT concentrate as they move up through the food chain. For example, if a pelican eats four pounds of fish a day (approximately 12 sardines or twice that many anchovies), that pelican has ingested every little bit of pesticide every one of those fish accumulated during its own lifetime of eating contaminated plankton. The pesticide didn’t kill the birds outright, however; it killed the next generation. It concentrated in their fatty tissues, altered their calcium metabolism, and resulted in the production of thin eggshells. 


Throughout the 1970s and even into the 1980s it was rare to see a California brown pelican. The species was federally classified as endangered in 1970 and, in 1972, the use of DDT was banned. In 1986 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a Recovery Plan for the California brown pelican. Currently the only breeding colonies of California brown pelicans in the U.S. are on two Channel Islands.

The museum’s California brown pelican embodies a difficult history. But hope is the thing with feathers. A walk along the Monterey Bay today reveals brown pelicans just off shore: flying in a line, skimming close to the surface of the water. Closer in, another pelican sits on a rock, seeming to pose for a close-up view. While it’s always possible to get within inches of the unmoving museum specimen, look outside for the beauty of the species’ ongoing recovery. 

Learn more about brown pelicans here.