Grab-and-Tag with Pelicans
Story and Photos by Kris Millgate
I want to stop breathing. I’ve never wanted to stop breathing, but at this moment I want it more than anything.
I’m bent over, standing on the bank of Gull Island at Blackfoot Reservoir. I straighten up and try to gulp air through my mouth. I swallow bugs, and then spit. I give my nose another shot at its job with a tiny test whiff, and the stink sends me over again into violent gagging. I had been warned about the rank smell of a pelican colony, but the warning wasn’t nearly strong enough.
“It’s horrible,” says first-time pelican bander Dan Seymour as he hands me a blue face mask. “Absolutely horrible. You don’t know what you’re getting into when you come here.”
The big birds who nest on Gull Island every summer comprise one of two nesting pelican colonies in Idaho. The state’s Fish and Game Department bands and tags three hundred chicks before they leave the nest. The pelicans are only a few months old, but they’re still close to the adult size of twenty pounds, even though they can’t fly yet. They pile on top of each other like sheep that won’t separate, snapping their beaked pouches in defense. The frenzy stirs up a sensory assault of dried feces, spent feathers, and regurgitated fish.