The World in a Bird

By Rien Fertel

Rien Fertel tells the story of how he began bird-watching at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how one bird in particular caught his attention and inspired him to write his latest book, Brown Pelican.

Photograph by Grayson Smith, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I am a pandemic birder, one of the perhaps millions of new bird-watching enthusiasts who took up the hobby during the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown. I set up a bird feeder, braved visits to the hardware store for forty-pound sacks of birdseed, and soon began tallying my backyard sightings: house sparrows, blue jays, cardinals. I moved on to exploring, with binoculars and a new generation of smartphone field-guide apps, New Orleans’s green spaces and waterways to spot herons and roseate spoonbills, fluffy great horned owlets in City Park, and, just once, a reddish egret—a rare inland visitor that hunts its prey by dancing (or so it appeared to me) on the water’s surface like a pink- and purple-feathered Baryshnikov.

This rise in bird-watching comes at an inauspicious time. According to a study published in Science magazine just months before the pandemic’s start, the North American bird population is down by almost three billion breeding adults, a reduction of 29 percent since 1970, due to human-induced changes to our seas, skies, and landscapes. 

Armed with something more than a passing flight of fancy, I dutifully, perhaps obsessively, chased—or “twitched,” in British birding parlance—every bird I could: every migratory warbler, flycatcher, and hummingbird. I stalked an American kestrel, the continent’s smallest and cutest bird of prey, outside a hospital parking tower, and took to spending at least ten minutes every Sunday morning watching a bald eagle couple and their pair of eaglets nesting behind an apartment complex in nearby Chalmette.

And then there was the bird too omnipresent to ignore. One whose image adorns our Louisiana state flag, gruesomely feeding its young from its own pierced and bloodied breast. I had seen this species all my life, hovering in the background—winging its way gracefully up the Mississippi River in flocks, crashing with a splash in Lake Pontchartrain, sitting sentinel-like on half-rotten pilings. The brown pelican.

Once I started sorting through the pages of history for information to write this book, it quickly became evident that the brown pelican was no less ubiquitous in its chapters than in the past, and its story no less grave.

Twelve years ago, in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the brown pelican—lacquered with crude in copious photographs—became perhaps the most recognizable symbol of that catastrophe, which killed upward of 2.5 million birds and 12 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s pelican population.

Photograph by Liz Bourgeois.

This wasn’t the first time the brown pelican took a hit from human malfeasance. Just over a century earlier, during World War I, fishermen decimated Gulf and Atlantic populations after blaming the bird for stealing their catch. Pelicans, in actuality, prefer to fill up on smaller, nonfood fish like the menhaden.

Just a decade before that, the brown pelican had become a target for plume hunters, who scoured the mangrove swamps of Florida to sate the need of ladies’ hat manufacturers. In response, Theodore Roosevelt, by presidential decree, established the first national wildlife reserve at Pelican Island.

By the late 1960s, ornithologists working on the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California had discovered that the brown pelican was under threat once again, this time from insecticides popularized following World War II—most notably, DDT. When poisoned runoff from the Mississippi River basin reached the Gulf of Mexico, the results were disastrous for Louisiana’s coastal pelican population. From 1963 to 1973, the brown pelican was locally extinct in Louisiana. The Pelican State was pelican-less, and the bird was declared endangered by the federal government.

The brown pelican is but one bird, a single species among the 10,000-plus we can encounter today. But through my research and the writing of this book, the brown pelican began to hold everything, to explain the world’s predicament, as a stand-in for humankind’s relationship with the environment, for today’s global climate crisis, for how we treat the planet—and ourselves. The brown pelican became the world in a bird.

Rien Fertel is a writer and teacher who lives in New Orleans. He is the author of three previous books: Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera, The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog, and Imagining the Creole City: The Rise of Literary Culture in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans.

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In this compelling book, Rien Fertel tells the story of humanity’s complicated and often brutal relationship with the brown pelican over the past century. The pelican adorns the Louisiana state flag, serves as a religious icon of sacrifice, and stars in the famous parting shot of Jurassic Park, but, most significantly, spotlights our tenuous connection with the environment in which it flies, feeds, and roosts—the coastal United States. Brown Pelican combines history and first-person narrative to complicate, deconstruct, and reassemble our vision of the bird, the natural world, and ourselves.

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