St. Maarten’s national bird under threat

POSTED: 11/13/14 8:38 AM

St. Maarten – Based on a year-long research project about St. Maarten’s brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) population, the St. Maarten Nature Foundation discovered that with a total of 339 recorded pelicans the population has severely decreased over the last four decades. These numbers include eight chicks and 35 sub-adults. The health of St. Maarten’s pelicans is representative of the general health of the marine ecosystem: more pelicans mean a healthy marine environment, while fewer pelicans indicate that their habitat is under threat.

As part of the research project, the Nature Foundation investigated the threats with which these birds are faced. It was concluded that destruction of habitat is the primary threat for these birds. The resident pelican population’s decrease in numbers coincides with the building boom experienced on St. Maarten during the 1960s and 70s, when many breeding sites had to make way for seafront development. Breeding season for adult pelicans runs from the beginning of June through August, with the peak occurring at the end of July and ending in August.

Fishing line and other marine debris, such as plastic bags and other garbage, pose a threat to the bird species. The birds become entangled in the fishing line and debris. The Nature Foundation often responds to incidents where pelicans are caught in fishing line or hooks, fishing nets, plastic bags, or soda can holders. As a result of this, the foundation is currently taking steps to introduce a line recycling program, which will hopefully reduce incidents of marine entanglement for not only pelicans, but also for numerous other marine wildlife.

The brown pelican is one of St. Maarten’s national symbols and is depicted on the island’s flag and coat of arms. The bird also lends its name to various businesses and institutions on the island. Despite its popularity, there was previously very little information on the status of the pelicans on St. Maarten. The Nature Foundation, therefore, decided that in order to properly conserve and manage this culturally important species, there was a need to collect vital information on nesting areas, the number of remaining pelicans, and what type of threats the birds face.

Research was carried out from November 11, 2013, St. Maarten’s Day, to November 11, 2014. Each site was counted once every two months. The general public assisted on numerous occasions.

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