Abstract A Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus arrived in Cornwall in May 2016 and remained in southwest England until November that year. This individual had been seen in Poland, Germany and France in April and May 2016, which fuelled the debate over its origins among British birders. BOURC decided that, on balance, this bird was most likely of wild origin; they accepted the record and the species to Category A of the British List. The background and explanation for that decision are summarised here.
Distribution and status
The Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus has a wide but fragmented distribution across the Palearctic, breeding colonially on islands in large lakes and deltas from southeast Europe to Mongolia and China; in winter the species is found from Greece to southern China (del Hoyo et al. 1992; Crivelli et al. 1998; Catsadorakis & Portolou 2017).
As with other pelican species, Dalmatian Pelican populations underwent long-term declines during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with birds lost from many breeding sites and colonies dwindling in size. However, conservation initiatives in Europe have been successful, with populations in Romania stabilising, and those in Greece, Turkey and Albania increasing (Crivelli 1996; Barov & Derhé 2011; Onmus et al. 2011; Catsadorakis & Portolou 2017). The species’ status has been revised down from Vulnerable to Near Threatened by IUCN (BirdLife International 2018). In Asia it appears to be faring less well. For example, in Hong Kong, a wintering flock numbering up to 85 birds in the 1960s has gradually declined and since 2005 the species no longer occurs regularly (Carey et al. 2001; Allcock 2015). This loss reflects the decline of the East Asia population, which was estimated at no more than 30 individuals in winter 2006/07 (Yu & Chen 2008).
In Europe the Dalmatian Pelican is dispersive rather than migratory, moving only short distances between breeding and non-breeding areas, and remaining in the eastern Mediterranean throughout the winter (Crivelli et al. 1991). It is now established that pelicans of various species can move well beyond their normal range, however, with singles and even some groups observed moving large distances (Jiguet et al. 2008; Grussu & Atzeni 2012).
Birds arrive on the breeding grounds from February to March, and depart from August onwards (del Hoyo et al. 1992; Crivelli et al. 1998). Analysis of extralimital Dalmatian Pelican reports in Europe and the Middle East revealed two peaks of occurrence: the first in May after the start of breeding, probably due to the dispersal of failed breeders, and the second in October, reflecting post-breeding dispersal (Jiguet et al. 2008).
Dalmatian Pelicans are kept widely in captivity in collections and zoos across Europe (Dasiewicz-Czaban et al. 2006). The Zoological Information Management System listed 569 registered birds in 2017 (ZIMS 2017). A large number of confirmed and apparent escapes have been observed. Such birds can move surprisingly large distances in some cases; see DAK (2017) and Komisja Faunistyczna (2017).
This mixture of wild and escaped captive birds means that the status of Dalmatian Pelican in western Europe is complicated. In many countries, the species is not part of the national list, being placed in Category E following the occurrence of confirmed escapes (note that in Belgium one record was placed in Category D1 since its origin was unclear; Faveyts et al. 2017). In other countries, however, wild birds have also been observed, and the species is included in Category A of the national lists of Poland (seven records), Germany (one), Denmark (one), France (two) and the Netherlands (one) (Ebels et al. 2006; Komisja Faunistyczna 2017; BirdGuides 2018; Dutch Birding 2018).
British records of Dalmatian Pelican
The Dalmatian Pelican was present in Britain in pre-history. The remains of the species have been found in the Bronze Age and Iron Age fossil record from the fens of Somerset, East Yorkshire and East Anglia (Stewart 2004; Yalden & Albarella 2009). Indeed, the species appears to have been present across northwest Europe, with mid-Holocene archaeological remains identified from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany (Nikulina & Schmölcke 2015).
In recent times, there have been just three British records, all thought to relate to individuals which escaped from captivity:
Cornwall Marazion, April–May 1951. Reported as an escape from the Netherlands (Penhallurick 1969).
Cornwall, Dorset, Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Scilly, Sussex and Isle of Wight Various localities in these counties between 29th October 1967 and 25th January 1968. The identification was accepted by BOURC but the bird was considered likely to have been an escape from captivity (Colchester Zoo) and the species was placed in Category E (BOU 1972).
Cheshire & Wirral Elton Hall Flash, Sandbach, 16th November 1974 (Evans 1994).
A new British bird
On 7th May 2016, a Dalmatian Pelican was observed flying past Gwithian, in Cornwall (Freestone 2019). The bird eventually settled in west Cornwall at Drift Reservoir, where it lingered until mid June. It then relocated to the Fal Estuary, where it was last reported on 20th November, although it was also seen across the county border in Devon. From the bird’s plumage characteristics it was evident that the same individual had passed through Poland, Germany and France during April and May, before arriving in England (table 1).
Table 1. Sightings of the 2016 Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus throughout Europe (Komisja Faunistyczna 2017; Peter Barthel pers. comm.; Pierre-André Crochet pers. comm.).
6th April 2016
Stawy Przygodzickie, powiat ostrowski, Wielkopolskie, Poland
Objezierze i Żukowo, powiat obornicki, Wielkopolskie, Poland
Park Narodowy Ujście Warty, powiat sulęciński, Lubuskie, Poland
Altfriedländer Teiche, Brandenburg, Germany
Pfaueninsel, Berlin, Germany
Volkmannsdorf, Thuringia, Germany
Worms, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany
7th May to 20th November
Cornwall and Devon (see text)
In Poland, the record was accepted to Category A of the national list as a wild bird, the seventh record for Poland. However, four others in Poland during 2016, including three immatures, were placed in Category E owing to the likelihood of captive origin (Komisja Faunistyczna 2017). In Germany, the record was placed in Category D, but it was accepted to Category A of the French list, and became the second for France (Peter Barthel, Pierre-André Crochet pers. comm.).
The British record was considered by BBRC, who accepted the identification and aged the bird as third-calendar-year or older. As it was a potential first for Britain, the file was passed to BOURC, who then had to judge whether the bird derived from wild populations in the eastern Mediterranean or from captive collections (BOU 2018a).
Several factors were consistent with the bird having a wild origin. Populations of Dalmatian Pelican in the eastern Mediterranean continue to recover, which increases the likelihood of extralimital records. Pelicans are potentially prone to vagrancy, and this individual was on the move at a time of year (April and May) consistent with a non-breeder. Moreover, there was no evidence of a captive origin: it was unringed and lacked the obvious damage to feathers or bare parts often seen in caged birds. It also behaved in a wild manner, being wary and unapproachable.
There were no tangible reasons to suggest that the Cornish bird had a captive origin. Nonetheless, its prolonged stay in southwest England was unsettling, even for the keenest listers, although it was impossible to know how a genuine vagrant might behave in such circumstances. Moreover, the species is kept widely in captivity, and even in countries where records have been accepted to Category A, confirmed escapes have also been observed.
As part of the process of making a judgement about the bird’s origin, BOURC consulted with other national committees in the three countries where the bird had been seen prior to its arrival in Britain. Ultimately, BOURC decided that, on the balance of probabilities, this Dalmatian Pelican was most likely to have been of wild origin. Seven members voted for Category A and one for Category D. BOURC standing orders state that where ‘the identification is accepted and… the categorisation option is either A or D [a record] will be [accepted] by a two-thirds majority.’ Since this record received seven votes for Category A and just one for Category D, the record and species were added to Category A of the British List (BOU 2018b).
My thanks go to members of both BBRC and BOURC, whose deliberations on the record are summarised here. Thanks to Andrew Harrop and Andy Stoddart, who commented on early drafts of the text. BOURC acknowledges the very useful interactions with other European Committees when considering this Dalmatian Pelican: Peter H. Barthel (Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft), Pierre-André Crochet (Commission de l’Avifaune Française) and Zbigniew Kajzer (Secretary Komisja Faunistyczna). Thanks also go to Piotr Ćwiertnia of Poznań Zoo, Poland, for information on captive birds.
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Christopher J. McInerny, BOURC Secretary, School of Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ; e-mail [email protected]