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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. This beloved bird with the mythically bottomless belly—to say nothing of its prodigious pouch—has been deemed a living fossil and the most dinosaur-like of creatures. 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.

In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island, Florida, in order to rescue the brown pelican, among other species, from the plume trade. Despite such protections, the ubiquity of synthetic “agents of death,” most notably DDT, in the mid-twentieth century sent the brown pelican to the list of endangered species. By the mid-1960s, not one viable pelican nest remained in all of Louisiana. Authorities declared the state bird locally extinct.

Conservation efforts—including an outlandish but well-planned birdnapping—saved the brown pelican, generating one of the great success stories in animal preservation. However, the brown pelican is once again under threat, particularly along Louisiana’s coast, due to land loss and rising seas. For centuries, artists and writers have portrayed the pelican as a bird that pierces its breast to feed its young, symbolizing saintly piety. Today, the brown pelican gives itself in other ways, sacrificed both by and for the environment as a bellwether bird—an indicator species portending potential disasters that await.

Brown Pelican combines history and first-person narrative to complicate, deconstruct, and reassemble our vision of the bird, the natural world, and ourselves.