When Pelicans Peli-can’t: rescuing wildlife with wonderful people on Follet’s Island

When I was a child, the Brown Pelican was listed as endangered. I recall, in the late 70s, seeing perhaps one or two Brown pelicans at most on trips to Galveston. In recent decades the bird has bounced back and is now listed as “least concern.”  On any given summer day in Surfside Beach, one can watch squadron after squadron cruise above the beach and some days they gather in one great flight of 60-100 birds.

For me, these birds are icons of the region. Most of them fly south in winter, but many remain throughout, barely skimming the wave tops, allowing the surf to catch a wingtip and drag them into a school of fish in a dance-like move that seems almost too sudden and risky to be worthwhile.

In summer they are numerous and the juveniles are prone to injury and illness. In one 24-hour period during the week of August 4-10, 2019, the rescue organization for which I volunteer, Gulf Coast Wildlife Rescue received five juvenile Brown pelicans in varying levels of distress. A couple had mangled wings, one had been hooked with lost fishing line and treble hooks that had then lacerated its chest. Others were emaciated and sick with parasites. This brings the total of Brown Pelicans currently (thus far, this August) in care at GCWR to ten. All are juveniles. Some will not be releasable but will need to find homes in zoos or wildlife centers. Most will, after considerable recovery time, be released in Brazoria county nearby.

Believe it or not, that ^ is a legit rescuer. Thank you for the pic, Laura. I think. 🙂

GCWR has various animals in care in addition to the pelicans: seagulls, doves, mockingbirds, raccoons, bats, reptiles etc. I think, however, the pelicans hold a special place in my heart and in that of many of those who live or frequent Surfside Beach/Follet’s Island.

This juvie was caught by Michael 8/11/2019 as I sought shad to lure it in. You can compare it to the adults in the link given in the earlier paragraph so you can see the difference.

Does it seem like there just a lot of Pelicans being rescued right now?

Why the young birds are getting this sick is up for debate. In general, younger birds have less skill at feeding themselves and, when weakened by common bird illness, this may make it harder for them fight off the parasites that a mature bird might be able to muddle its way through. Potentially, their immune systems simply aren’t mature enough to fight the illnesses as effectively. None of that explains what appears to be a spike in parasitic illness.

I wonder though, if what’s happening, right here and right now, is as much about people as about the birds. There are a lot of wonderful people learning that sick pelicans can be rescued* Someone rescues a bird and a post goes up on Facebook with pictures of these lovely animals and now dozens if not hundreds of people see it. When someone sees another pelican on the beach they recall they saw one being rescued in a similar situation and they know, if not exactly where to go, then sort of where to go and the wheels are set in motion. I believe rescues have accelerated in large part because of the nature of the internet in concert with human kindness. Meh. Could be wrong.

While I have gained a great deal of satisfaction out of getting these birds out of harm’s way and into safe hands (and if anyone would like to volunteer, please join us! It isn’t difficult and it’s very rewarding) I have never done it single-handedly. In every case, it has required, at the very least, the call of a concerned animal lover into the GCWR hotline at (979)849-0184. And it has been on most occasions that I have enlisted the help of the caller or other beachgoers in the actual rescue.

So, what I have gained most from the experiences with rescues and rescue transports, on Follet’s Island or in the Brazoria county area, is an appreciation for the variety of good people willing to help with pelican rescues, stay up late to get a duckling to safety, interrupt their work day to save baby raccoons, or stand in blistering heat to watch over nestling mockingbirds and doves (repeatedly). I appreciate each and every person who has given their time and heart to these rescues in whatever form and, of course, on the other end of the process, the vast time and resources that the rehabbers give to the animals. I’ve got the easy job. Pick ‘em up and move ‘em out. 😊

* Please read this important note about pelicans on the beach. If a pelican comes and rests near you on the beach, it is sick. If a pelican is standing on the beach and not flying away a great distance to get away from you, it is sick. If it goes in the water a short distance and paddles back to shore after you leave it alone, it is sick. Even if it flies down the beach 30-50 yards, it is probably sick. It may not be catchable if it is flying that well, but it is not confident in its own abilities to get off the beach and go do its pelican-ing. In Brazoria or Matagorda Counties, call GCWR. Pelicans will become habituated out of need (like some juveniles I’ve seen on our Surfside Jetty), but those on the beach that are “resting” are not habituated pelicans. If the bird flies out over the water and doesn’t come back, it’s fine.

Please do not try to feed a sick pelican. I use shad or similar small fish to lure them to me, but I am not trying to feed the birds. Feeding a sick pelican can make them sicker and potentially kill them.

Finally, I’m only speaking about pelicans. Many other sea and shore birds will allow you to approach and then fly off only short distances but are perfectly healthy.

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