By Hu Berry
Conservation science requires that quantitative data are provided to validate a statement. Consequently, when I enlarged the digital image of the ring on a pelican’s leg, it confirmed that 13 320 days previously the same bird had been the recipient of this ring when it was a chick. That translates into 36 years and six months ago. Is this a world record for pelican longevity?
It was 30 December 1972 when rangers accompanied me to Walvis Bay guano platform where thousands of cormorants and hundreds of white pelicans were breeding. Our intentions were to mark pelican chicks before they fledged. It was the first leg-banding of pelicans in the then South West Africa and we were accordingly excited. A brief trip by boat took us to the man-made platform that was built 70 years ago by an enterprising German business man. Little did I anticipate what the future would bring as a result of our excursion.
Hauling ourselves onto the wooden planking, we were greeted by a cacophony of disturbed, nasal grunting from the beaks of a multitude of cormorants, coupled with soft mooing of perturbed pelicans. Overriding this noise was the odorous and unforgettable pungency emitted by a guano colony. The rangers’ main responsibility was to prevent mobile pelican chicks from escaping and falling into the sea, from which they could not regain the safety of the platform. These were the chicks that were sufficiently developed in growth to be ringed.
A problem faced me as I placed a ring on the left leg of a well-fed chick that was sprouting its wing-flight feathers – the bird would grow to between five and nine kilograms if it was a female and between nine and 15 kilograms if it was a male. The diameter of its leg would grow correspondingly and thus allowance had to be made to avoid fitting the ring too tightly or too loosely. It is practically not possible to sex pelican chicks at this age, so I based ring-fitting on the average, known leg diameter of the adult sexes. We banded 30 chicks in this way and they all responded appropriately by regurgitating well-digested fish and squirting even better-digested fish over us as we held them. It took nearly two hours to complete the ringing and we left the platform as a salty breeze gusted in from the south-west, adding sea spray to our pelican-impregnated overalls.
Three-and-a-half decades later our paths crossed again, when I visited one of the jetties in Walvis Bay harbour from where tourist pleasure cruises start. There, in perfect pelican plumage, was one of the 1972 chicks, confirmed by its ring number, which I could photograph and also read by binoculars. Pelican number H1024 and I were both 13 320 days older. As I watched it and sipped a cup of steaming coffee, I pondered what both the pelican and I had experienced in that time. A fresh south-westerly breeze gusted in from the south-west, just as it had done on the guano platform more than 36 years ago.
This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.