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location of channel islands

The Brown Pelican Recovers
Empty nests in the 1960’s, 1970's

Legal Protections
* Migratory Bird Treaty Act
* Endangered Species Act - US
* Endangered Species Act - California
Other wild bird protection laws


* Santa Barbara Efforts and



The recovery of the California Brown Pelican is a success story for the Endangered Species Acts, (ESA), both federal and state. The Channel Islands National Park boasts the only breeding area for the endangered species. West Anacapa is the favored — and protected — location for nesting sites, although other Channel Islands host some pelican families.

map of Anacapa

In 1970, before the ESA and the banning of DDT/DDE, and the understanding of the dangers that Rachel Carson warned about, there was but a sole chick hatched. Recently, more than 6,000 nesting attempts have been estimated. Still, though, especially with the increase of human population along the California coast with the related marine traffic and pollution, the handsome birds's future is uncertain.


For an excellent summary of what led to the recovery of the California Brown Pelican, see the IBRRC page, Pelicans in Peril, In Harm's Way. Pelicans, particularly, suffered from the pesticide DDT because the birds hatch their eggs by their vascularized feet. The weight of the large birds crushed their now thin-shelled eggs. In 1969, 750 nests were found but only four hatchlings. In 1970, there was only one chick.

This pattern was repeated throughout the range of the Brown Pelican. In Louisiana, where the pelican is the state bird, the number of Brown Pelicans was zero in 1961. Only recently, through introductions from neighboring states — and the banning of DDT/DDE — have the flocks returned. For a fascinating description of the plight and recovery of the pelican in Louisiana, with mention also of the research on DDT/DDE in the Los Angeles County area, click here.

orig. cover of Silent Spring

The silent spring that Rachel Carson portrayed had become already real for countless seabirds. And then came the worldwide publicity from the Santa Barbara oil disaster. The Union Oil spill of 1969 horrified and activated people out of a lotus land mentality: the safety of the gentle sea lapping our beaches could no longer be taken for granted.

Energized, Santa Barbara got to work and now justifiably claims to be the birthplace of the environmental movement, birthing GOO! (Get Oil Out!), stunning Union Oil president Fred Hartley who said, "I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds." For a good description with oil spill photos from that time, visit the Santa Barbara Wildlife Network.


Migratory Bird Treaty Act

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (16 U.S.C. 704) (MBTA) was the first major statute that would protect seabirds. It provides that to "pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention . . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird” are prohibited unless permitted by regulations.

It’s had various additions, incorporating different treaties, cited also by the Endangered Species Act, and also permitting States to adopt regulations for greater protection of migratory birds. The Act with its subsequent admendments applies to government agencies as well as non-governmental activity. See an analysis at BirdNet. Also see a discussion of the changes in the Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act of 1998.

Both the California Brown Pelican and the American White Pelican are included, along with most seabirds and shorebirds. Birds protected under the Act and its amendments include all common songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, hawks, owls, eagles, ravens, crows, native doves and pigeons, swifts, martins, swallows and others, including their body parts (feathers, plumes etc), nests, and eggs. For a complete list of protected bird species, see: 50 CFR 10.13. Also: note the exceptions for crows discussed in the FAQ about crows, "Can Crows be shot legally": <http://www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/crowfaq.htm#legal>

The penalty possibilities for a felony conviction are fines up to $250,000 ($500,000 for organizations) and imprisonment for not more than 2 years. Misdemeanor convictions under the MBTA may bring fines up to $15,000.

For the Fish and Wildlife Service types and applicability of the various migratory bird permits and the procedures and requirements for obtaining and complying with a permit, click here. For the final list of non-native migratory birds to which the treaty does not apply, click here.

Habitat protection, however, is not part of the MBTA and it is the degradation of the seabird habitat that is of especial concern.

Montana de Oro pelican flight

Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed by Congress in 1966, recognized the importance of the nation's "heritage in fish, wildlife, and plants" and and how they should be safeguarded "for the benefit of all citizens."

It directly addressed the concern about habitat loss. The purposes of the Act "are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of the treaties and conventions ...." (Sec. 2 (b))

In its Findings of Section (2), Congress determined that "the United States has pledged itself as a sovereign state in the international community to conserve to the extent practicable the various species of fish or wildlife and plants facing extinction, pursuant to:
(A) migratory bird treaties with Canada and Mexico;
(B) the Migratory and Endangered Bird Treaty with Japan;

(C) the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere
(D) the International Convention for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries;
(E) the International Convention for the High Seas Fisheries of the North Pacific Ocean;
(F) the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora; and
(G) other international agreements;

An important part of the ESA is to encourage States — by means of financial assistance and incentives — to develop and maintain conservation programs which meet national and international standards. That federal-state cooperation is key to meeting the Nation’s international commitments and to better safeguarding, for the benefit of all citizens, the Nation’s heritage in fish, wildlife and plants.

Penalties for violation (ESA § 11): Criminal penalties of up to $50,000 or imprisonment for one year, or both, and civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, may be assessed against a person who knowingly violates...; there's a possible civil fine of $500 per violation. See the Summary of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, in the Federal Wildlife Laws Handbook.

California Endangered Species Act

The California ESA parallels the federal law. Under CESA the term "endangered species" is defined as a species of plant, fish, or wildlife which is "in serious danger of becoming extinct throughout all, or a significant portion of its range" and is limited to species or subspecies native to California.

CESA prohibits "taking" of an endangered species and to "take" is defined in §86 of the Fish and Game Code "take" as to "hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill, or attempt to hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill." As with the ESA, there are authorized exceptions allowed.

Unlike the ESA, there is no knowledge requirement; the Act states in §783.1 (a) No person shall import into this State, export out of this State or take, possess, purchase, or sell within this State, any endangered species, threatened species, or part or product thereof, or attempt any of those acts, except as otherwise provided in the California Endangered Species Act, Fish and Game Code Section 2050, et seq.

Fines and jail sentences, may be imposed upon individuals who “take” a state-listed species without appropriate permits and without California Department of Fish and Game approval. Violations of the California Endangered Species Act can include a criminal penalty of up to $5,000 and/or one year imprisonment for each violation, and a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each listed species taken.

February, 2009: The proposed delisting of the California Brown Pelican went into effect on February 6; click here for the Initial Statement of Reasons. This has not been met with the rejoicing one might imagine because of the problems the species has met this winter. See the January and February news section of this Web site and specifically the IBRRC statement concerning the delisting.

Other wild bird protection laws

There are a variety of laws and conventions protecting wild birds. For an overview, click here for the US Fish & Wildlife Guide to the Laws and Treaties of the United States for Protecting Migratory Birds, noting the distinction between habitat and population protections.



DDT/DDE is no longer a major problem for the pelicans. The California Brown Pelican flocks have returned to coastal waters, ranging as far north, some summers, to Puget Sound. The concern for wildlife, seabirds, including perhaps especially for the pelican, the proud symbol of the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, runs deep in the Santa Barbara area.

In late spring and summer, many of the new crop of youngsters, all brown with white chests, just recently fledged and freshly arrived on the mainland, cluster at Santa Barbara's Stearns Wharf and other fishing piers along the coast. They hope for an easy meal. But there's rarely a free lunch: many will suffer from careless and occasionally cruel fishermen.

Santa Barbara's excellent Waterfront/Harbor Department employees, led by Waterfront Director John Bridley with Harbor Operations Manager Mick Kronman, have been proactive with educational signage and efforts for proper fishline disposal. (The city-designed sign at the right is one of several informational signs in the harbor area.) The Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol is in the forefront, assisting the volunteers of the SBWCN in rescuing injured seabirds, untangling fishing line from legs and wings, removing painful hooks, braving avian lice.

Wildlife care volunteers up and and down the California Coast work to rehabilitate and release to freedom pelicans from injuries, domoic acid poisoning outbreaks and oil damage. Please
click here and here in this site for what you can do if you see an injured pelican or other seabird.

Stearns Wharf sign to not feed pelicans

As deadly as fishing line can be, oil spills are a more serious threat to the species's survival. Anacapa Island is the primary California Brown Pelican breeding site. Although West Anacapa is closed from January 1 to October 31 for nesting, the Santa Barbara channel is a major route for oil tankers. The devastation of the 1969 Union Oil spill from the offshore platforms is fresh in local memories. The oil spilled in June, 2005, off a platform near Breton NWR shows what damage even a relatively miniscule amount can do.

More offshore oil leases are being talked about and LNG terminals are being considered for southern California, including the Oxnard area, not far from Anacapa. This winter an undetermined source oil spill/leakage devastated thousands of seabirds, grebes and some pelicans, an unsettling reminder that one major oil spill could eliminate most of the California Brown Pelicans that have been so carefully restored to their ancestral waters.

Along with supporting the rescue of individual injured birds, we all must be vigilant to keep the coastal waters clean and pollution-free. The survival of the DDT/DDE-bellweather bird, the California Brown Pelican, depends upon us. For more information on the survival of the California Brown Pelican, take a look at the informative IBRRC (International Bird Rescue Research Center) site. They do wonderful work!


If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. ...


Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

...Rachel Carson



summer evening
A peaceful summer evening at East Beach, Santa Barbara


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Contact: info@pelicanlife.org