A citizen count of brown pelicans from Baja California north to Washington state was held at dusk on May 7, and according to preliminary results announced on Wednesday, 6,378 total birds were counted. The population has not been formally counted since 2006, when roughly 70,680 pairs — or about 141,360 brown pelicans of breeding age —were counted in the same general region, though the 2006 count included islands where the birds nest, which the citizen count did not. Information from the May count, the first of its kind, is considered to be a preliminary and partial look at the current pelican population. A second citizen count in October will augment this one. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) is also funding a $120,000, five-year scientific study of the brown pelican population.
Intermittent bird counts held since the brown pelican achieved delisting as an endangered species in November 2009 indicate a drift downward in numbers. The citizen counts, as well as the ongoing Fish and Wildlife study, will give a more accurate indication of whether brown pelican populations are indeed in decline, said Ashley Spratt, of the Ventura USFW office, the lead field station for the “birding blitz.”
The May survey included 179 locations along the coast and known roosting “hotspots” for the soaring fisherbirds, whose numbers were decimated by the long-lasting pesticide DDT in the 1970s. The count took place from 5-7 p.m., and 187 participants used Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon’s eBird portal to record birds spotted, notes, and photographs.
The majority of the birds were found between San Diego and San Francisco, which held about 150 of the reporting sites. Eight sites were in Mexico, five in Washington, and 19 in Oregon. In the 2006 count, recorded in a U.S. Geological Survey study published in 2007, wildlife ecologists found the majority of brown pelicans nesting in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Roughly 15-20 percent of the population is known to breed at California’s Channel Islands.
Spratt said timing was important in a count like this, with fewer birds on the coast possibly indicating more birds nesting on the islands. The next count will be held in October, and people interested in participating can find out more at ca.audubon.org/.