California brown pelicans were taken off the US endangered species list in 2009. To guarantee their long term survival we need to make sure to not repeat history.

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, is a pesticide that was commonly used after the second world war. Though effective at killing insects, it also causes eggshell thinning in birds. This was a particular problem for California brown pelicans since they incubate their eggs with their feet. Due to the thinner shell, brown pelicans were crushing their own eggs. In 1969 only twelve of three hundred nests contained whole eggs on West Anacapa Island, the only breeding colony in California. The rest were crushed. In fact, the near shore waters of southern California have experienced the highest levels of environmental contamination by DDT anywhere in the world. This was not only caused by local agriculture, but by the Montrose Chemical Company which was discharging hundreds of pounds of DDT directly into the southern California oceans.

In 1972 the use of pesticides like DDT was banned in the US — though we are still the number one producer of DDT, now shipping it abroad. This was the biggest historical factor in bringing California brown pelicans back from extinction. Chemical pollution however is still a problem, not from DDT, but from agricultural and industrial run-off.


Plastic pollution is the new, constantly increasing modern threat to pelicans. They often consume it, thinking it is food. The conservation group Save our Shores reports that their volunteers pick up sixty pounds of trash per beach clean up. They also average around 385 pounds of garbage per river clean up. Rivers that flow into the ocean. It is easy to imagined how much trash gets swept into the ocean that we simply don’t even know about.

The great part of this story is that the steps to help Brown Pelicans survive are easy to take. Eating organic food, buying re-usable bottles and bags, and volunteering with local beach clean up organizations can all help the California brown pelican. With small change, a big difference can be made, as this majestic seabird’s history has already shown us.