Pelican Washes Up on Beach
|From the Anguilla Local News - Site Map.|
Guest article by Betsy Coville, D.V.M.
My vacation to Anguilla in January of 1998 started like all the others. As always it was great to see all the familiar faces at Carimar (both staff and guests). It seems like an annual family reunion. I had been extremely lucky to see my first whale while fishing with Ed from Sandy Ground. When I heard my name called from the beach one morning my first thought was "It's a whale!" I ran down to the beach to find a crowd gathering near the umbrellas. I drew closer and spotted the curiosity receiving so much attention - a pelican!
He appeared to have a broken wing and had been washed on the beach by the heavy surf. After eight years as a zoo vetinarian, getting my hands on a pelican would be a piece of cake. All I needed was a few willing herders and somebody else's beach towel (wild birds frequently have lice that will not live on people, but do itch when they crawl on you). Once we had him wrapped up, I was able to give him a physical exam. His wing was not broken, but some fishing line was wrapped around his elbow and the skin was badly torn. Removing the fishing line was easy, but he was not able to fly and was very weak. He must have been floating for quite a few days before being washed up on the beach.
Any time you handle a wild animal it is very stressful for them. There are several animals that have died from the stress of human contact and restraint. Keeping that in mind, we attempted to offer him food which he could eat on his own. Luckily my father had some bait fish in the freezer. We tossed him a fish, but it hit the beach and was too sandy to swallow. We tried burying a water bucket in the sand with fish in it. We herded him to it and he would look, but not eat. He was dehydrated because he gets most of his water requirements from the fish he eats, not from drinking the salty ocean water.
Without food and water he would definitely die. We had no option but to force feed him and hope he could handle the stress. All the volunteers had their assignments - bird holder, bottom beak holder, top beak holder, water pitcher holder, fish bucket holder and me! We got a long thin rubber tube from a douche bag, lubricated the end with egg white and passed it down his throat to put water in his stomach. Then I pushed down several fish, which he swallowed. It was dusk, so we released him in the field next door and he leapt up to a low branch and perched for the night.
I was afraid to look for him the next morning. There are a lot of stray cats on the island. They are the cause of the declilne in the native dove from the nest raiding and killing of adult birds. I was up at dawn with my tube and fish and head back down to look for my buddy. He was still asleep where we left him, so we waited until he awoke. After we force fed him his breakfast, he was pretty weak and sat fluffed on the beach. He did not move much all day. We were vigilant in protecting him from curious beach walkers wanting to pet him. We gave him another meal at dusk, and set him by his perch for the night.
I did not have high hopes - he had lost weight, the elbow wound was open and he did not want to move. A lot of vacationers had become involved in his rescue and were all rooting for him. To my amazement, a few days of force feeding and he started to pick up his feet and show some spirit. He would stop and flap his wings in place and exercise the muscles which he needed to fly.
I knew at this point that just feeding him was not sufficient. I would not be here forever (unfortunately!) and he needed rehabiliation to live in the wild. To survive he would need to start swimming and do a lot more wing flapping. He followed us to the water and we could feed him by tossing the fish in the ocean. A few times he was swept under by the waves, but always came bobbing back up and running for high ground. He did not want to go back in the water, but we knew it was necessary if he was to survive.
It was time to start "tough love." I had to force him, despite his protests, to run from me and start to flap his wings as if taking flight. By this time at least 200 tourists had stopped to pose for a picture with the pelican. He would spend the day cruising the beach between Carimar and the Malliouhana rocks. The first time he took flight with a low glide over the water we let out a cheer! That same night after a seaside dinner for my buddy, he disappeared. We checked all the cliffs surrounding the bay and could not find him anywhere. We feared the worst, but were thrilled to see him back on the beach at sunrise.
He looked a little rough, he had used a lot of his energy while flying. He was very hungry, but as I fed him breakfast I knew it was time to wean him off handfeeding. For the first time that day another pelican joined him on the beach. You had to wonder if he was a relative, or just curious. My buddy had become very comfortable around people and showed no fear. Anyone reaching out their hand was very likely to be bitten, as he reached for a handout. We needed him to stay away from people, since they aren't all friendly!
It was very difficult not to feed him as he followed me to the water on my last day. I was leaving and it was time for him to survive on his own. As I left for the airport he was under the umbrellas and I felt good about leaving him. I wondered if I would be able to pick him out of the flock next year. I knew I wouldn't, but it didn't matter. He is out there and making it on his own, thanks to some people who cared.
Betsy Coville, D.V.M.Revised: June 12, 1998
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