Peruvian pelican – Pelecanus thagus

Pelican eye

The Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus) is one of the main guano producing sea birds of Peru. This near threatened species is endemic to the Humboldt Current area. The main threats to Peruvian pelicans are the fish meal fisheries and the illegal killing for human consumption.

Page author: Stefan Austermühle 

Last updated: 2010.10.17.

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Pelican flying

Become engaged in the conservation of the Peruvian pelican:

You can become a Mundo Azul conservation volunteer and take part in a full month research program on marine mammals and birds. Your participation makes our marine research possible because your participation fee is used not only to pay your costs but also to help financing our research.

You can go birding in Peru with our associated travel operator Nature Expeditions. You will be guided by Mundo Azul field researchers. This way your birding tour becomes not only great fun, but also an unforgettable learning experience and at the same time you are part of real research and supporting species conservation.

 

The Peruvian Pelican 

pelican colony

A pelican, derived from the Greek word pelekys (meaning “axe” and applied to birds that cut wood with their bills or beaks), is a large water bird with a large throat pouch, belonging to the bird family Pelecanidae.

Along with the darters, cormorants, gannets, boobies, frigate birds, and tropicbirds, pelicans make up the order Pelecaniformes. Modern pelicans, of which there are eight species, are found on all continents except Antarctica. They primarily inhabit warm regions, though breeding ranges reach 45° south (Australian Pelican, P. conspicillatus) and 60° North (American White Pelicans, P. erythrorhynchos, in western Canada). Birds of inland and coastal waters, they are absent from polar regions, the deep ocean, oceanic islands, and inland South America.

The Peruvian Pelican, Pelecanus thagus (Molina, 1782), lives on the west coast of South America, from Lobos de Tierra Island (6°S) in Peru to Pupuya Islet in Chile (33.5°S) and therefore is a bird endemic to the Humboldt current.

The Peruvian pelicans average weight is 7 kg; Peruvian pelicans reach a length of 1.5 m. Peruvian pelicans are dark in colour with a white stripe from the top of the bill to the crown and down the sides of the neck; pale upperwings; dark brown patch on humerals; long tufted feathers on head; facial skin dark with restricted pink around the eye; reddish bill tip; bill base yellow; blue striped gular pouch that is brighter during its breeding season.

Taxonomic note: The Brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis and the Peruvian pelican Pelecanus thagus were previously lumped into P. occidentalis. They are now considered distinct species. The Peruvian birds are nearly twice the bulk of the Brown Pelican; they are also longer.

 

pelican chicken

Reproduction of the Peruvian pelican

Breeding takes place during the austral spring-summer (September-March). Settlement and courtship begin in mid-September. Three eggs represent the commonest clutch size. Laying is asynchronous, spreading from October to February, but a peak of laying seems to occur between mid-November and early December.

Pairs nest in discrete groups of different sizes, ranging from ten to several hundreds. The majority of chicks hatch between late December and early January. It seems that creching of chicks can take place when they are three to four weeks old. From the last week of March onwards, chicks disperse to beaches or to the tops of cliffs for their first flight. Post-fledging feeding has been observed. Chicks fledge in average at 85 days of age with a mean asymptote body mass of 6700 g. However, a maximum mass of 7300 g can be reached at 54 days after hatching.

Pelcan face

immature pelican

nonbreeding adult pelican

Pelican flying 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pelicans fishing

Ecology of the Peruvian pelican:

The Peruvian pelican breeds in large colonies on rocky coasts, feeding in shallow offshore waters along the coast on small schooling fish. This bird feeds on several species of fish. The main prey species is the Peruvian anchovies (Engraulis ringens). Other species consumed are Sardines (Sardinops sagax), Trachurus murphyi and Scomberesox saurus.

Peruvian pelicans feed by diving into the water from flight. During coastal bird watching and whale watching tours with our associated ecotourism operator Nature Expeditions Peruvian pelicans can be observed regularly in common feeding frenzies with Sea lions, dusky dolphins, Guanay cormorants, Peruvian boobies, Inca terns and several gull species. Especially Peruvian boobies, Guanay cormorants and Peruvian pelicans are seen travelling and fishing together, avoiding food competition by fishing in different depths. While the Peruvian pelicans fish near the surface, Peruvian boobies fish in the middle layer and Guanay cormorants dive down to the lower layers of fish swarms.

 

PICTURE

Range & population size for the Peruvian pelican:

The population range is estimated for the Peruvian pelican lies between 100,000 – 1,000,000 birds. In 1996 there were an estimated 400,000 pelicans in Peru. The El Niño Phenomenon 1997-98 made the Peruvian pelicans migrating southwards reducing the Peruvian population in 99.4%. Although the population may currently exceed 500,000 mature Peruvian pelicans, this is a fraction of former numbers.

 

PICTURE

Commercial importance of the Peruvian pelican:

Guano is a natural fertilizer made of seabird droppings. Like Guanay Cormorants and Peruvians boobies, Peruvian Pelicans are considered as the main guano producing seabirds because of their large populations and their nesting habits.

About 170 years ago the world became aware of the guano and demand increased explosively causing an economic boom. Intoxicated by prosperity, the Peruvian Government pursued a single goal: Dig up the guano as fast as possible; ship it to United States, Europe, and other part of the world; count the profits. No thought was given to the welfare of the birds that produce guano; no thought for the enormous time required to amass deep, rich deposits. In the third quarter of the 19th century alone, the peak of mass exportation, Peru shipped an estimated 20,000,000 tons, worth two billion dollars.

A few decades later, with guano reserves depleted, Peru faced agricultural disaster, for the rich fertilizer is absolutely essential, together with irrigation, to support its farms. The fresh guano crop dipped in 1909-1910 to 48,809 tons, a minute fraction of the country’s own yearly need.

In 1908 the Peruvian Government created the Guano Administration Company that worked hard to recover guano-producing seabird populations, by constructing walls around the mainland breeding colonies that protected the birds from natural predators. With this and other measures they managed to increase the guano bird population in Peru to about 40 million in the 1930s.

 

PICTURE

Conservation status of the Peruvian pelican:

Nowadays the guano birds are in grave danger. Of the 35 to 40 million guano birds (made off mainly of Peruvian pelicans, Peruvian boobies and Guanay cormorants) nesting off the Peruvian coast, merely 1.8 million are left. Within the last 60 years the total population of guano birds was reduced by 95 percent.

  • The status of the Peruvian pelican was first evaluated for the IUCN Red List in 2008, being listed as: Near threatened.
  • Peruvian pelicans are a protected species in Peru

 

PICTURE

Threats to the Peruvian pelican:

Guano birds are threatened by the deadly combination of three factors:

  • The natural “El Niño” Events
  • The fish meal industry
  • The illegal killing of marine birds for human consumption

The El Niño phenomenon has always caused strong mortalities in the guano bird population. The black arrows in the graphic, mark strong El Niño events and their impact on the bird populations. As can be seen in the first event registered in the graphics, the devastating short term effect of El Niño previously had not been a major problem for the birds. With the return of their main prey, sardines and anchovies, the guano bird population could recover within a few years.

However, by the 1950′s a new industry started in Peru, the industrial fisheries for Peruvian anchovy created a permanent situation of food shortage. Guano-producing seabird population decreased as the catches of Peruvian anchovy increased. With annual captures of up to 8 million tons of anchovies and a fleet overcapacity estimated between 30 to 100 %, there is simply not enough food left for the birds.
 

The population increase from 1953 to 1971 was limited by the quick development of the industrial fishery, and was drastically reduced due to El Niño events (ENSO) occurred in 1957/58 and 1965. Due to over-fishing and ENSO 1972/73 the anchovy stocks collapsed and caused high bird mortality. The following population increase was very slow because of the capture levels observed from 1972 to 1982. ENSO 1982/83 occurred during the breeding season and caused total nesting areas abandonment and the mortality of 58% of the population.

By 1996, Guanay Cormorant population had decreased to an estimated 3.7 millions of birds, Peruvian Boobies to 2.6 millions and Peruvian Pelicans to 400 thousand birds in comparison to the beginning of the 20th century.

As a consequence of El Niño event, guano- producing seabird populations decreased further during 1997. Changes in the marine environment near the colonies reduced food availability. Peruvian anchovies moved to deeper waters or migrated southward. ENSO 1997-98 started after most cormorants and boobies finished the breeding season; therefore, most guano-producing seabirds were ready to migrate southward searching for food. In contrast to other El Niño events, few birds were found dead along the coast.

Additionally, guano birds are illegally killed by artisan fishermen for human consumption, purely being a poverty caused problem. The birds, from pelicans to penguins are sold on the markets to the poorest levels of society. In June 2003, an artisan fishing boat was caught by the Peruvian navy, carrying 2,000 dead guano birds on board destined to be sold on the meat markets. In police operations, based on information from under-cover investigations by Mundo Azul, illegal dealers of guano bird meat could be caught in the markets of the city of Callao.

 

PICTURE

Conservation measures:

The biggest part of guano birds nowadays nests on the 35 guano islands and cliffs under the management of the state-owned guano production company Proabonus, a company that runs nearly without generating profits as the few birds left do not produce enough guano anymore. A formerly important export product, that could generate good profits on the market for natural fertilizers, being increasingly demanded by the organic agriculture, has been destroyed by the fish meal industry.

The guano island system (23 islands and 10 cliffs) was created more than 100 years ago in order to give strict protection to the guano birds. Nowadays, the guano islands are also the last refuge for a number of other endangered marine species. They are the breeding ground for 72 percent of the Southern fur seal (Arctocephalus australis), 84.4% of the South American sea lions (Otaria byronia), 60% of the Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti), and, most important, the entire population of the endemic and highly endangered Peruvian diving petrel (Pelecanoides garnottii).

Even though the islands were officially protected by law, some of them already have been invaded by small scale fishermen, fishing in front of them or killing birds. Aquaculture projects also have been installed on and around the islands and cause further human presence on the islands.

Mundo Azul initiated in 2001 together with other Peruvian and international NGOs an initiative to declare the guano islands to be marine protected areas and integrate them as a National Reserve in the governmental system of protected areas (SINANPE). After nine years of lobbying the Peruvian government finally established the national Reserve Guano Islands in December 2009, a step that we see as one of the big successes of Mundo Azuls conservation work.

However, the new reserve so far is a so called paper park, not counting with management and financial resources. There is still a long way to go within the next decade to secure effective protection of the populations.

 

Pelican flying 2

What needs to be done in order to protect the Peruvian pelicans?

  • The Marine protected areas require effective management.
  • The fish meal fishery needs to be reduced significantly.
  • The government needs to create economic incentives to convert the fish meal fleet into a fleet for human consumption fisheries.
  • Law enforcement has to be improved in order to avoid illegal hunting of guano birds.
  • Regular surveys are needed to assess population size.
  • Regular monitoring at certain sites throughout its range is needed to determine population trends, particularly after El Niño years.

Become engaged in the conservation of the Peruvian pelican:

You can become a Mundo Azul conservation volunteer and take part in a full month research program on marine mammals and birds. Your participation makes our marine research possible because your participation fee is used not only to pay your costs but also to help financing our research.

You can go birding in Peru with our associated travel operator Nature Expeditions. You will be guided by Mundo Azul field researchers. This way your birding tour becomes not only great fun, but also an unforgettable learning experience and at the same time you are part of real research and supporting species conservation.

Stay in touch with Mundo Azul! Sign up to our google group “Mundo Azul International” and receive news about our work and nature conservation in Peru, Web site updates, action alerts, suggestions on how you can participate or help, volunteer opportunities, internship and job openings and much more.

Follow us on Twitter

Become a member of our Facebook group “Mundo Azul International

Page author: Stefan Austermühle 

References:

BirdLife International, 2008a: “Peruvian Pelican Species Factsheet”, Retrieved 17/10/2010
BirdLife International, 2008b: “2008 IUCN Redlist status changes”,Retrieved 17/10/2010

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