Juliet Lamb, Project Pelican

Juliet Lamb, Project Pelican

  Illustrated by  Susanne Lamb

Illustrated by Susanne Lamb

Interview with Dr. Juliet Lamb of Project Pelican. Juliet works on the spatial ecology and the breeding biology of Brown Pelicans in the US Gulf of Mexico. [Ed note: Juliet Lamb is Illustrated Impact co-founder Susanne Lamb's sister.]

Tell us about Project Pelican, your team and your role.

Project Pelican started in 2012 as my PhD research project. Our main objective is to study brown pelican movements in the Gulf of Mexico using GPS tracking, and figure out what habitats and resources are important to pelicans and how they interact with structures like oil platforms. The core of the team is me, the head of our research unit (Dr. Pat Jodice), and a full-time research assistant (Yvan Satgé). We've added on some new projects and collaborations, including expanding our work to California and the Atlantic. 

Where are the pelicans now (in April)?

In the Gulf of Mexico, they're mostly back at breeding colonies and have laid eggs already. It takes about four months to raise a pelican chick, so they have to start early to finish before hurricane season.

What poses the biggest threat to pelicans? 

In the Gulf, pelicans are losing a lot of nesting habitat due to erosion and subsidence. That will only get worse with the effects of climate change. I would say that and contaminants like oil are the biggest threats to the species. 

What can pelicans teach us about the environment?

The first national wildlife refuge in America was called Pelican Island, and it was established to protect pelicans and other birds that were being hunted to decorate women's hats. Later, in the 1960s, brown pelicans almost vanished from North America because DDT thinned their eggshells, and they were one of the species that inspired the Endangered Species Act. Today, during oil spills, more pelicans are killed than any other bird. Pelicans are a symbol of the history of conservation in the United States, and they alert us to environmental problems that might otherwise be invisible.

What other animals have you studied?

I've worked on a lot of different seabirds, wading birds, raptors, and songbirds. I've also worked with fish, insects, elk, and farm animals.

What drew you to studying birds? Why seabirds specifically?

I'm a scientist because science isn't based on subjective values or perceptions, but on a system for testing ideas and sharing information that anyone can reproduce. It's the only system for understanding the world that makes sense to me. At the same time, I like doing science that addresses real-world problems.

My first job after college was re-introducing endangered harpy eagles in a rainforest in Panama, and I've been hooked on birds ever since. I like traveling and being outside, which is easy to do when you study birds. Seabirds happen to live in the places I love best: islands. They are great for research because they gather in huge groups (so you can always get a good sample size) and nest out in the open (so they're easy to observe). 

What's the most rewarding aspect of your work? What's the most challenging aspect?

I think the most rewarding part is getting to enter the world of the birds. When you're in the middle of a seabird colony, you're a guest in a non-human society that has its own systems and rules. It's a privilege to be allowed into their lives-- it really changes your entire outlook on the world. The most challenging part is trying to do a good job as a scientist while knowing that the results of your work can be tossed aside at any moment for political reasons, and trying to convince people to care about species that may never have economic value.

What do you think people should know about pelicans? (Or any other bird!)

Cool facts about pelicans: their eyes are grey for most of the year, but when they breed their eyes turn bright blue. Also, they make a lot of noise when they're chicks, but once they're adults they don't make any noise at all. Why do they go silent? It's a mystery!

Seabirds live for a LONG time-- there's an albatross breeding on Midway that's over 60, but even gulls and terns can live over 30 years. They also reproduce very slowly. So the death of even one adult seabird has a huge effect on the population. 

To what degree do you interfere with natural events? How do you determine when to intervene and when to "let nature take its course"?

Seabirds usually have more chicks than they can raise, so there's a lot of death at seabird colonies. We usually don't intervene except when something happens as a direct result of human activities-- if a bird falls out of a nest because it sees a person, or if we see an animal tangled in fishing line. Some level of death is a natural part of the system, but we don't want to do anything that might add to that natural level.

In your work, do you frequently encounter the effects of pollution, global warming or other harmful human impact?

All of the above. The Gulf of Mexico is a hotspot for human activity and a real test of how we can learn to coexist with marine wildlife. Seabird colonies are threatened by sea level rise and increasing storm activity, and seabird prey is moving in response to warming oceans. Around the world, island ecosystems are often the most sensitive to human activities, since they contain unique species with few natural predators. Seabirds are killed in huge numbers by introduced predators, fishing activity, plastic pollution, prey depletion, habitat loss, and hunting.

What's your favorite place to do fieldwork?

The Orkney Islands are definitely my favorite place I've worked with seabirds. The birds nest on sheer cliffs, and you can look out across a cliff face and see nothing but birds. It's really wild, but also has interesting human history and a unique and welcoming culture.

What would a dream project be for you?

I would love to work in the Caribbean-- there are a lot of seabirds there that are declining or under-studied. Each individual country is so small that they can't do much on their own, so there's a lot of potential for local populations and governments to work together on seabird conservation, and for good science to help them figure out what actions to take.

What steps can people take to help the environment? Is there anything people can do to help pelicans specifically?

Even if you live far from the ocean, your trash ends up there. We see so many dead pelicans and other birds tangled in fishing line and balloon strings-- I once pulled an entire plastic water bottle out of a pelican chick's throat. On an individual level, we can have a huge impact by rejecting disposable plastic: changes to plastic consumption usually come from grassroots efforts and economic pressure, not from legislation. If enough people speak out and make good choices, we can change social attitudes about things that add unnecessary waste to the environment, like balloon releases, or single-use plastic bags and water bottles. [More on discarded fishing equipment, and its deadly impact here.]

Do you have any good news to share with someone worried about Earth's future?

My generation has been raised with a first-hand understanding of the problems humans cause in the environment, in a way that no other generation has. Many of us value outdoor activities and the existence of wild places more than we value material objects or wealth. So I'm hopeful that the anti-environment, pro-consumerist stance of our government is the death throes of an old system, and that the rising generation has the experience and understanding to do better.

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation.

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