National Fisherman

From our archives: Alaska Fisherman's Journal, October 1981

A Pelican in Petersburg

By Jonni Dolan

Early August — Petersburg has a pelican... nobody saw it arrive. Nobody knows why it is here, but everybody is interested in it, and all agree they have never seen anything like it. Pelicans aren't found in Alaska. The North American continent hosts both the brown pelican and the rarer white pelican, but their ranges are nowhere near Alaska. The brown pelicans can be found along the coast of Florida, Texas and sometimes from southeast California to southwest Ontario in the summer, and they spend their winters, admirably, in Guatemala or Florida. The closest known summer habitat of the great white pelican is Williams Lake, British Columbia, at least 550 miles from Petersburg.

The great white pelican is normally a shy bird who shuns civilization for the remote lakes of the Canadian interior, but here in Petersburg, Alaska, we have a great white pelican who lives on the cannery and sea plane docks and eats herring out of your hand. The bird was first sighted in Scow Bay late in the evening of May 2, 1981. Since then "he," and we use the gender advisedly — male and female white pelicans being discernible from one another only by size and weight comparison — has been paddling up and down the Narrows in front of town begging herring from sport fishermen and eating it as fast as the kids can catch it for him. Mark Horton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office here is a little concerned because the bird is so tame. "I saw him foraging for himself at first," he said, "but now he mostly eats handouts. I don't know how he'll fare through the winter — if he stays."

We won't know until the end of the summer, of course, whether or not he will stay, but for now he is more than content to eat what is given to him.

"He likes fresh herring," the receptionist at Alaska Island Air told me, "and we gave him trout out of the freezer and he liked that, too."

The sport trollers have been especially hard hit by the begging pelican. He swims right up to the trolling skiffs and looks sideways over the rail to see what you have to offer. If he doesn't like what you have, he'll turn his back as if your offering were not worthy of his attention and paddle off for pickings more in keeping with his sophisticated palate. Then, when he finds what he wants, he is incorrigible.

"We watched one girl unbait her hooks, feed all her bait to the bird and he still wanted more," one observer said. "Then she just stood in the skiff and threw up her hands!"

Another time I watched him take to the air, thrust his head back in the strictly pelican manner and follow a halibut boat, whose bait he must have particularly enjoyed, right out the Narrows. I feared he was gone for good.

But the next day he was back actually harassing a fisherman. He was so quick to steal the bait off the fisherman's hooks, the fisherman finally took off his hat and beat the pelican over the head with it. Fortunately the bird backed off and didn't continue the fight. With his nearly nine foot wingspan and weight of over fifteen pounds, Pelican Pete could pack quite a wallop of his own.

According to the Petersburg Pilot, Pelican Pete is the first recorded pelican in Alaska. One other straggler was once reported at the Mackenzie River Delta in the Arctic. For whatever reason, Petersburg's Pelican Peter is here, we just wish he had a friend and that he could stay.

There are lots of questions as to why the bird is here and contrary to some local gossip, Ray Wood of Petersburg Processors, well known for his compassion for hurt animals and stray dogs, did not bring it here. So where did he come from? How long will he stay? We don't know, but one thing we do know is that the pelican saves the face of a certain artist.

The story has it that when the federal building in Juneau was under construction the planners hired an outside artist to design a fountain for the building. The artist reportedly studied a map of southeast Alaska and finding the city of Pelican on it, determined that Alaska must have pelicans, Not until after the hushed, puzzled silence at the unveiling of the fountain of pelicans did the hapless artist learn that Pelican was named after a boat and the state of Alaska had never seen a pelican — until now. Cheer up, artist, wherever you are, southeast Alaska now has a pelican.

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