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Brown Pelicans and Brinksmanship

How many times can a phoenix rise from the ashes?

By Amethyst QuPublished 8 months ago 8 min read
April 17, 2010, Queen Bess Island, Louisiana, photo by the author

“Live each day like it’s your last, ’cause one day you’re gonna be right.” — Ray Charles

April 17, 2010, was an extremely breezy day to visit Queen Bess Island, a bird breeding spot offshore Grand Isle, Louisiana, but there was a boat already chartered and so we went. The boat was bouncy, and my photographs blurry, but you get the idea.

It was a beautiful blue day full of happy Brown Pelicans working on their nests.

Other birds too.

A lovely pink line of Roseate Spoonbills had arranged themselves along the rocks. Nature doesn’t give us rocks in southeast Louisiana, but the park service placed them there in the 1990s to keep the island from washing away.

A lot of things keep washing away in our state.

And Queen Bess Island is an important breeding spot for our state bird, the Brown Pelican. A bird once common, extirpated from the state and then brought back.

As much as you can bring a bird back.

The Louisiana sub-population was gone forever. Our birds are now descendants of Florida birds.

But we’ll wave that point aside. This story isn’t about taxonomy.

Roseate Spoonbills & Brown Pelicans, April 17, 2010, by the author

On April 20, 2010, three days after my visit, the Deepwater Horizon blew in the Gulf of Mexico. Queen Bess Island, with its critical location in Barataria Bay, was completely oiled.

According to the wisdom of Wikipedia, the disaster also known as the BP Oil Spill remains the largest marine oil spill in the history of the world. I have no reason to think they’re wrong.

Needless to say, the happy birds in my photos did not succeed in their nesting attempt that year or for many years thereafter. Despite a heroic rescue effort, many of these birds were destined to die.

Well, if you were there, you know the story. Eleven men killed through the carelessness of a foreign-owned oil company led by a truly dreadful colonialist of a CEO — we fought the Revolutionary War for this? — and, eventually, the largest environmental damages settlement in US history.

And if you weren’t there?

You might think, so what. A lot of dead birds. It could’ve been worse. A lot of places now, it is worse. Canada burning down. Pakistan under water. Fire and flood. You know it as well as I do, that whole end-times apocalypse thing the planet’s got going on these days.

What Does It Mean to Never See a Pelican?

Being about as old as you can be without being a boomer, I attended college in the late 1970s. My freshman chemistry professor, a gentleman of advanced years, usually stuck to the math and science of it all.

One day toward the end of the semester, he was moved to share a little parable about…


I’m not sure what it was about.

He spoke carefully. Indirectly. As people do when they don’t know how their speech will be received.

Perhaps it was about the price of civilization. Or the role of careful testing.

Perhaps he only wished to remind his budding young chemists that we might make one of those discoveries the movie directors tell us, “Man was never meant to know.”

(We were all men back then. Even the women. Don’t ask. We were apparently not to know the reason for that rule either. The English department was in charge of that, and they assured us it was so.)

“I have lived in Louisiana for twenty-five years,” said the venerable old prof. “Your state bird is the pelican, and yet I have never seen a pelican. I have never seen an eagle.”

Now you might think the dour old gentleman was blind as a bat, but it was the ’70s. I had no reason to doubt him. Many of my classmates — most of them, perhaps — could say the same.

In the 1950s, a chemical manufactured upstream polluted the waters of the Mississippi, causing the eggshells of larger birds to thin. Adult birds mated, made nests, and laid eggs, but when they sat on those eggs, they broke them.

Brown Pelican Rehab, 1987, photo by the author

Broken eggs may make omelets, but they don’t make new generations. And so the Louisiana population of the Brown Pelican died out over the course of the next few years. The adult Bald Eagles lived but couldn’t breed, so they too began to vanish from our skies.

After this frightening population collapse, some fools in the state legislature either came to believe the state bird might really be the American White Pelican — or they pretended to. George Lowery’s 1974 edition of Louisiana Birds tells us this:

“The oversight led one year to the appearance of the American White Pelican on Louisiana automobile license plates. And by 1958, when the lawmakers finally got around to specifying the Brown Pelican…almost no individuals of the species could be found…”

The average citizen was not to be fobbed off with a literal shell game. There was widespread public outcry. The guilty chemical was banned from production.

As the adult Brown Pelicans had already died off, new ones had to be brought in from Florida.

Crisis averted.

In 2009, the Brown Pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List. The Bald Eagle had already been removed from the list in 2007.

‘It Could Have Been You’

“You think that is a terrible thing,” said the prof, speaking at a time when none of us knew if the pelican could ever be restored. “Your state bird was killed by a modern chemical down to the last bird. But did you ever think of this?

“We chemists did not know this kind of side effect could occur. We did not test for this.

“It could have happened that the chemical did the same thing to humans. We would not have known in advance. It could have happened without any warning.”

Probably not exactly the same thing. We wouldn’t see our eggshells thinning. We’d just… stop having babies, I suppose.

I often pondered what point he was trying to make.

The obvious one, of course: birds are our canaries in the coal mine. The winged messengers who bring us one final warning.

But also: a warning that seems terrible and even cruel may be less terrible than no warning.

Chemicals are tested more carefully today than they were in the 1950s. The non-kook segment of the population regards this as a sensible precaution.

Phoenix Birds

No one who goes outside in southeast Louisiana today can claim, straight-faced, that they never saw a pelican or an eagle. You can see them from downtown New Orleans with very little effort.

Not to mention countless other places. Including your own backyard. Terrible as the Deepwater Horizon disaster seemed in 2010 — terrible as it truly was — its effects were less terrible than any of us believed at the time.

People were saying the Gulf might be too polluted to fish again for decades. “This is worse than Katrina!” I would hear people say. “The Gulf is poisoned.”

But not poisoned beyond all hope of recovery.

As National Geographic reported in April 2020:

Queen Bess Island is the first restoration project, supported by $200 million from the spill settlement slated specifically for bird conservation in Louisiana. After three years of planning, the unprecedented $18.7 million gamble to redesign and rebuild the island began in September 2019, at the end of the pelican nesting season.-- "Critical nesting ground restored, 10 years after BP Oil Spill," April 2020.

Within days of removing the equipment in February 2020, over a thousand Brown Pelicans appeared on the island.

As the saying goes, it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. It only matters how many times you get back up.

In that, the Brown Pelican truly is the state bird of Louisiana.

How Many Warnings Do You Think We’ll Get?

They say the alarms kept going off at Chornobyl. So the brass turned them off.

They say the same thing about Deepwater Horizon. Eleven men were killed, which meant a manslaughter investigation — which meant we found out what they say is true.

The alarms were indeed turned off.

As if turning them off would make the danger go away.

"Listen up, bro!" rehab pelicans 1987, photo by the author

Well, friends, the birds keep sounding the alarms. And anybody who has tried to step outside in this summer of fires, fury, and heat dome keeps hearing those alarms.

But if our kooky leaders keep turning them off? If they keep refusing to take action while the forests burn and the oceans boil?

We’re limited in what we can do. Every middle-class individual could give up something of value in their life — as if they already haven’t! — and it wouldn’t matter because the bulk of the poison is coming from upstream.

We are the Brown Pelicans.

A much-shared statistic originally published by the Guardian tells us:

Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988…-- Tess Riley, July 10, 2017

I’m not going to hand out any cheap takeaways from our summer of fiery doom. If we’re the Brown Pelicans, I don’t have any easy advice.

But I can say this.

Enjoy the day you have in front of you.

Three days later, it might be gone.

Author's Note

This story was first published on April 19, 2022. You can now read it here without encountering a paywall.

My feature photographs of Brown Pelicans and Roseate Spoonbills on Queen Bess Island were taken on April 17, 2010, from a boat on a windy day. We did not land to avoid disturbing the rookery of nesting birds.

The two lower images are scans of film photographs that I took in 1987 of rescue Brown Pelicans at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.


About the Creator

Amethyst Qu

Seeker, traveler, birder, crystal collector, photographer. I sometimes visit the mysterious side of life. Author of "The Moldavite Message" and "Crystal Magick, Meditation, and Manifestation."

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