I heard a man tell a vivid and detailed story about how, after spotting fish from great heights with its exceptional eyes, the Blue-Footed Pelican dives into the ocean to catch its dinner. Over time, the repeated impact of diving into the water makes the bird blind. Unable to feed any more, it eventually dies. The lesson the speaker drew from this was that we must all be prepared for our inevitable demise. OK, I'll put more in my RRSPs, but does this really happen to pelicans? He said you could look it up. So I did.
The first problem was finding the correct bird. About eight different species of pelican exist, none of which are called the Blue-Footed Pelican. Maybe the speaker was confused with the wonderfully named Blue-footed Booby, which lives on the Galapagos Islands among other places. It is a good diver, but I did not uncover any reports of it going blind from diving.
Taking a Dive
I looked into what other kinds of pelicans dive. Turns out that the Brown Pelican is the only one that does. It occurs along the coasts of North America and beyond. Here's a video of one in action.
Most sources said that diving pelicans going blind was simply a myth. I haven't been able to figure out the origins of the story, although this article seems to propagate the story and I found someone who claimed she had seen blind pelicans in Costa Rica, but that was for an arts degree...
Pelicans can go blind because of avian botulism from diseased fish or chemical pollution. But the greatest threat to Brown Pelicans, is not going blind, it's dealing with humans. In California, the residue of pesticides in the fish they eat damages their eggs. In Florida, the major problem is getting tangled in fishing gear.
The Take Home
Brown Pelicans were actually removed from the endangered species list in 2009, but that was before the big oil spill in the Gulf. As usual, the lessons to learn from nature are more inconvenient truths.