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Bird Lovers United to Count Brown Pelicans

Two hour birding blitz was first of its kind and will aid conservation of an iconic species

San Francisco – Nearly 200 citizen scientists and volunteers surveyed California brown pelicans at 179 locations in California, Oregon, and Baja Mexico on May 7 – this was a first of its kind effort to engage birding enthusiasts across the West coast in a bi-annual survey of this iconic Pacific coast seabird. A fall survey is planned for this October.

The survey protocol was designed by experts to capture a comprehensive snapshot of pelican abundance and age distribution. This information is needed to understand how potential threats from changes in weather patterns, to changes in prey availability, changes in habitat or contaminants, could impact California brown pelican populations over the long term.

“Over time, data collected through citizen science surveys like this one can help shed light on longer term California brown pelican population trends,” said Steve Henry, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in Ventura, the lead field station for the project. The citizen-science driven data will be combined with data from a five-year breeding survey at the Channel Islands, which is home to up to 20 percent of the breeding population.

The survey is a joint project of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program, state agencies, and the Audubon network. All participants reported their observations and photos through a special location in eBird, an online database of bird observations providing scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance.

 “Crowdsourcing data is an excellent way to encourage the public’s love of Brown Pelicans and get bird lovers out doing what they love -- birdwatching,” said Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California, National Audubon Society’s lead office on the survey. “These volunteers are giving us an incredibly detailed view of how this species is doing in the light of threats from climate change and habitat loss.”

 “This pelican survey really illustrates one of the key strengths of eBird,” said Brian Sullivan, co-leader of the program for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “eBird allows us to take a snapshot of a single species at a specific point in time across a wide geographical area. The only way to achieve that is to tap into the eyes and ears of bird watchers who are dedicated to gathering data that can then be used to preserve and protect the birds we all care about.”

California brown pelican populations plummeted in the 1970s due to the impacts of DDT and other pesticides in the environment. In 1970 only a single chick survived out of 552 nests at the U.S. Channel Islands’ Anacapa Island off the southern California coast. That same year, the species was listed as federally endangered. DDT was banned in 1972, and so began the fight to save the California brown pelican from extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a recovery plan for the species in 1983, and strong increases in both productivity and nest attempts were observed in the mid-1980s. From 1985-2006 the Anacapa Island nesting colony produced a mean of 4,600 nests each year. In 2006, the Service estimated the entire California brown population at around 70,680 nesting pairs, equating to 141,360 breeding birds.

Due to this remarkable recovery, in November 2009, the California brown pelican was removed from the endangered species list, but remained protected under the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Since delisting, conservation partners including the California Institute of Environmental Studies, National Park Service and other organizations have collected intermittent population data on brown pelican populations, however, funding for comprehensive monitoring efforts has been limited.

Through those surveys, scientists observed poor productivity of brown pelicans on Anacapa Island at the Channel Islands and across the species’ range. Changes in the population of key forage species including anchovy and sardines raise questions and concerns about the health of the breeding pelican population.

Although numbers suggest a population decline, this limited data does not necessarily indicate a long-term trend. By collecting this important data through citizen science surveys, scientists hope to understand how potential threats from changes in weather patterns, to changes in prey availability, changes in habitat or contaminants, could impact California brown pelican populations over the long term.

To get more information on how to participate in the next California brown pelican survey this fall, please visit


About Audubon California

Audubon California is building a better future for California by bringing people together to appreciate, enjoy and protect our spectacular outdoor treasures. With more than 150,000 members and supporters in California and an affiliated 48 local Audubon chapters, Audubon California is a field program of the National Audubon Society.

More information is available at

About U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

About Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. Visit the Cornell Lab’s website at

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