If you look out over St. Maarten’s coastline, you will probably see St. Maarten’s national bird, the Brown Pelican, resting on boats or gliding low above the ocean, peering for fish below. The smallest of all pelican species, the Brown Pelican has a brown-gray body and a yellowish-white head. The neck is white except during the breeding season when it is dark brown.
The Brown Pelican is the only member of the pelican family that catches its prey by plunge diving, with its long broad wings partly folded. Because this bird has very good eyesight, it can spot fish from a height of 20 meters! The large skin pouch under its long grey bill can hold two to three times as much food as its stomach, and serves as a net to catch fish. Brown Pelicans can be seen fishing for their dinners at several areas around the island. Simpson Bay Lagoon, the outer Simpson Bay, Great Bay and Little Bay Pond are popular dining spots.
Following reports that the local population of Brown Pelican had greatly diminished, the St. Maarten Nature Foundation recently carried out a yearlong study to find out more about the Brown Pelican’s status. Information was gathered on the Brown Pelican’s population size, its nesting habits, its diet as well as its threats, with the aim of better managing and protecting the island’s national bird.
A total of 339 individuals were recorded. Breeding season was found to be between early June and early August. Habitat destruction was identified as the most significant threat, with many breeding sites lost to waterfront development. Thankfully, the most significant breeding and nesting sites, that is: Fort Amsterdam, Pelican Rocky and Molly BeDay, are currently not at risk. The study also found that overfishing and marine debris are endangering the island’s population of Brown Pelican. There is much hope that the recent establishment of the Man of War Shoal Marine Park will help significantly reduce these threats.