Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Wherefore Art Thou, Pelican?

I like many birds--red-shouldered hawks, eastern bluebirds, california quails, chestnut-backed chickadees, blue-crowned amazon parrots--but I've always had a soft spot for pelicans. Growing up in San Francisco, I would often see them soar above the beaches and the Bay, much like the raptors circling the headlands across the water. And not unlike those hawks, the pelicans could instantaneously transform from floating observers into swift predators; they'd tuck into themselves and dive bomb without a splash into the water, surfacing a moment later with beaks full of fish. Their dodo-esque stature when they stand on the sand is also endearing, and belies the speed with which they can swoop out of the sky.
In happier times...
I recognize the pelican's historical Christological significance--one of my colleges in England bore the image of a pelican pecking at its bloody breast on its shield--and I appreciate how this symbolism enriched much of the literature I used to study. But my love for the pelican is due to the visceral joy I feel when I see them fly, and surf, and float, and soar. Whenever I return to San Francisco and head out on my first run on the cliffs above Baker Beach, I keep my eyes peeled for flocks of pelicans. Once I see them, I know that I'm truly back home.

As a result, one can imagine my anxiety when I learned two months ago that pelicans along the West Coast were dying and disappearing in great numbers, and for no obvious reason. Now scientists believe that El Nino, among other winter storms, disrupted the accessibility of the fish upon which the pelicans normally prey, but in mid-January a giant question mark remained the dominant theory. Furthermore, when I returned to San Francisco in late February for a business trip, I saw no pelicans at all on any of my runs or walks, and only three total one afternoon as I drove into the City over the Golden Gate Bridge. How empty the coast seemed without them!

I'm hopeful that they'll have returned, in some number, the next time that I do, too. Until then, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that both plankton and anchovies can resist the Pacific-churning forces of El Nino, and thus let my pelicans fly home.

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