BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana is called the Pelican State, and now its officials are designing two projects to shore up coastal islands with an eye to improving nesting grounds for the namesake bird.
The state got $148 million following 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill to improve coastal rookeries, The Advocate reports . Officials recently told the state Wildlife and Fisheries Commission that projects being designed would improve Rabbit Island in southwest Louisiana's Cameron Parish and fill in an area around Queen Bess Island in Barataria Bay that's turned to open water.
The Queen Bess site has particular significance for the brown pelican, Louisiana's state bird. It's where scientists released young pelicans in 1968, hoping to restore the population after it was devastated by DDT. The insecticide caused pelicans and other large birds to lay eggs with thin shells, meaning the parents would smash the eggs long before chicks would hatch.
At the time, scientists didn't know much about how to reintroduce birds, so they chose chicks between 8 and 12 weeks old — strong enough to make the trip but too young to have their flight feathers yet. Scientists would bring the birds fish twice a day until they were old enough to fly, biologist Todd Baker said.
Three years later, in 1971, the birds released on Queen Bess Island returned to lay 11 nests — the first in a decade. The U.S. banned DDT the following year.
All told, Louisiana relocated 767 pelican chicks through 1976, and the population continued to grow such that the birds were removed from the endangered species list in 2009.
But officials now say pelicans are steadily losing Louisiana nesting sites. Some leave for Texas. Those that stay in Louisiana often must make do with less ideal nesting grounds, like coastal habitats where the ridges aren't as high, Baker said.
The oil spill also damaged the population. State officials don't have an exact number, but about a quarter of the dead birds collected from the disaster were pelicans. About 1,000 birds of all types were killed just on Queen Bess Island, where many pelicans nest, Baker said.
The rebuilding is a balancing act for scientists, who must rebuild enough land to expand the nesting grounds without making the island so large and high that predators move in, Baker said. The birds seek to avoid predators by laying their eggs on islands.
"As many drive along Louisiana's coastal region and see the pelican flying above, it is easy to take for granted their great abundance," Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet wrote in a statement. "The job now is to make certain the species continues to flourish."