Brown Pelican Survival by degrees

Photo: Brad Lewis/Audubon Photography Awards.

In 2014, the National Audubon Society released a landmark climate report detailing the risks faced by our favorite bird species as climate change effects are felt across the country and across the world. In 2019, the report was completely revised to included more observations, more data, and more threats.

Audubon’s new science shows that two-thirds (389 out of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. The good news is that our science also shows that if we take action now we can help improve the chances for 76% of species at risk.

Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of community-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change. Our work defines the climate conditions birds need to survive, then maps where those conditions will be found in the future as the Earth’s climate responds to increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

It’s the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, and it’s the closest thing we have to a field guide to the future of North American birds.

Photo: Lorenzo Cassina/Audubon Photography Awards.

April 20, 2019 marked the ninth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that endangered the economies of coastal communities, saturated marshes and wetlands with sludge, and smothered thousands of birds in oil. Despite millions of gallons of oil flooding into the Gulf of Mexico, two surviving pelicans from the disaster recently gave Audubon biologists new hope for the fate of rescued and treated bird victims.

In 2010, two oiled Brown Pelicans were rescued, cleaned, rehabilitated, and banded in Louisiana. The two survivors were then safely released at Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg, Florida. The region is home to dozens of Audubon-protected island sanctuaries that provide refuge to more than 50,000 coastal birds including thousands of Brown Pelicans.

Audubon biologists have spotted the banded pelican survivors in recent years at the Richard T. Paul Alafia Banks Sanctuary Critical Wildlife Area, which is leased from and managed in collaboration with The Mosaic Company. Biologists believe both birds are now using the sanctuary to breed - giving reason for hope for the once endangered species. These two survivors serve as a poignant reminder of just how important Audubon Florida’s work is to the region, state, and entire Gulf of Mexico.

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An ungainly looking bird, with its oversized bill and stocky body, the Brown Pelican is an elegant flier. When traveling, it may glide low above the surf; when hunting, it will perform spectacular dives, from as high as 60 feet, plunging into the water to scoop up a fish in its bill pouch. A highly sociable bird, the pelican is often seen roosting or flying in large groups. It lives year-round in estuaries and coastal marine habitats along the shores of the southern half of the United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Young pelicans frequently venture north during warm months only to encounter potentially lethal winter storms and irregular food supplies later in the season. The pelican has rebounded from seriously reduced numbers, thanks to the banning of DDT and rigorous recovery efforts.*


Predicted Brown Pelican Range with No Warming: Summer.
Predicted Brown Pelican Range with 1 Degree C of Warming: Summer.
Predicted Brown Pelican Range with 3 Degrees C of Warming: Summer.
Range Maps: Stamen Design

An icon of coastal waters, this species is projected to lose much of its current winter range by 2080, according to Audubon’s climate model. Potentially significant expansion of range may be possible—but much of this is well away from the coastal areas required for this species. One big uncertainty facing the bird in the coming decades is how climate change will affect its prey fish, even along its required coastal habitats.*

And yet, Brown Pelicans have proven themselves highly adaptable, regularly feeding and resting in areas commonly used by people, like fishing piers, marinas, and beaches. As sea level rise affects traditional nesting colonies, Audubon works to build living shorelines to help keep them safe.


What is Audubon doing for the pelican?

Audubon staff and chapters are training volunteers to work on piers to rescue pelicans that have been tangled with fishing line or swallowed bones. Audubon has also partnered in the production of an informational brochure called What to Do if You Hook a Pelican. Additionally, we have installed fishing line recycling tubes on fishing piers and in harbors to encourage proper disposal and reduce the amount of line that ends up in our waterways.

Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries staff patrol 75 colony islands along the Southwest Florida coastline to remove entangled birds as well as fishing tackle. Each fall, staff organize coastal cleanups to educate citizens on how much fishing line enters our waterways as well as encouraging methods of safely and effectively removing it.

Critically, Audubon is pioneering new living shoreline initiatives to reduce erosion and increase resiliency in areas the pelicans need to both feed and nest. Expanded projects in the Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary and four other regionally important rookery islands both add to these efforts and inspire other landowners to undertake similar efforts.

Photo: Photo: Dennis Werntz/Audubon Photography Awards.

Our Success

he Alafia Bank hosts the largest Brown Pelican colony in the Tampa Bay region and is an important multi-species bird nesting island for the entire Gulf region. Storms and boat wakes have eroded the shorelines of islands used as nesting habitat by not only Brown Pelicans, but also terns, shorebirds, and wading birds.

In an effort to stabilize the islands without losing natural shoreline, Audubon has teamed up with The Mosaic Company, Port Tampa Bay, Living Shorelines Solutions, and Reef Innovations to install additional reef breakwaters to reduce onshore wave energy, trap sediment, and gain shoreline width. In addition to reducing erosion, breakwaters produce calm water between the shore and the island, creating fertile ground for seagrass, which acts as an underwater nursery for crustaceans, fish, and other organisms.

Once complete, the new living shoreline will provide shelter for Brown Pelicans into the future, providing additional nesting habitat not only for the birds born here, but also for those relocated after the Deepwater Horizon Spill.

Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards.

What can I do?

Join a coastal cleanup, and tell your friends and family about the strange items that end up in our natural ecosystems each year. To reduce plastic consumption, avoid single-use items all together, re-use what you can, and recycle whenever possible.

Volunteer to help remove fishing line or start your own program to work at local piers and harbors.

Photo: Lorraine Minns/Audubon Photography Awards.


We already know what we need to do to help the birds we love.

Protect the places birds need now and in the future.

In addition to taking personal action at home, we must urge action at state and federal levels to address the root causes of a changing climate.

We know how to reduce global warming and already have a lot of the tools and solutions at our fingertips — what we need are more people who are committed to making sure those solutions are put into practice.

Audubon’s work is solutions-driven rather than by ideology. We understand how overwhelmed a lot of people feel by more bad climate news. Birds tell us; it’s time to act, and there is still time to get this right if we take action now and demand action from our elected officials at every level of government.

We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions at an urgent speed and on a wide scale from every sector of the economy — electricity generation, agriculture, transportation, commercial and residential buildings, and industrial processes.

Find Model Ordinances to Use in Your Community

Change begins with you! Changes at the local level can add up to big savings—in greenhouse gas emissions and taxpayer dollars. Improving the energy efficiency and clean energy mix of your city or county and keeping your waterways free of polluting nutrients can fight climate change and harmful algal blooms. To learn more and be connected with others interested in this work, email flconservation@audubon.org and sign up to receive our electronic newsletter for opportunities to lend your voice to Florida and its climate.

Curious about what your city or county could do? Here are some of the common ways small communities can make a huge difference. To make it even easier, we’ve included examples—model ordinances—that your city or county staff can consider as a starting point for crafting the solutions that work best in your community.

There’s no time to waste. Let’s get started today!