CROW Case of the Week: American White Pelican (#19-0314)

An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a familiar coastal bird that has broad wings, a long neck and a gigantic bill. You can view these large waterbirds floating around and feeding from the water’s surface near bridges and other areas. 

White pelicans feed by dipping their bills in water, a contrast to brown pelicans that tend to plunge-dive for their next meal. While cartoons depict pelicans as carrying fish in their massive bills, reports say this is not a true characteristic of their behavior. They are more known to scoop up their catch and swallow it before flight.

At CROW, an adult American white pelican was admitted from near mile marker 2 on Sanibel. Veterinary staff noted the patient to be exhibiting clinical signs that were consistent with brevetoxicosis (red tide poisoning) including head tremors, an inability to stand, extreme weakness and a decreased blink reflex. Although the red tide organisms have disappeared from our coasts for now, the toxins produced by the harmful algal organisms can still have lingering impacts on wildlife as they get passed through the food web.

“Red tide poisoning is caused by brevetoxins which are produced by the Karenia brevis organism. These toxins can be passed through the food web and can take time to accumulate in an animal’s body,” said Dr. Robin Bast, CROW staff veterinarian. “An animal may not accumulate enough toxins through its food to make it sick until well after the algae organisms that produced the toxin have dispersed.”

The pelican was given a “very guarded to grave” prognosis based on the severity of its symptoms. The CROW team placed an IV catheter in the bird’s leg to administer fluid therapy which remained in place for several days, along with other treatments. 

“Upon admission, we initiated intensive critical care treatments to stabilize the bird. This included placement of an IV catheter to administer fluid therapy and medications. Nutritional support was also provided, starting with a specially formulated liquid diet and working up to whole fish,” said Dr. Bast. “After one week of IV medications, the bird was transitioned to oral medications, and diagnostics were repeated to evaluate its progress.” 

The pelican rebounded from its ill fate and recovered after nearly two weeks of care. It was taken off medications and moved outdoors. “The pelican spent a couple days in the outdoor enclosure so that we could monitor its ability to fly. It was eating well on its own before being released,”. said Dr. Bast.

On February 20, the patient was cleared for release and was taken to the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and set free in a location with other American white pelicans. There, it will blend in with like birds without the need of monitoring. “CROW does not provide any form of tagging unless it is specially requested by permitted individuals,” said Dr. Bast. “This pelican was not tagged, but refuge staff and volunteers are always quick to notify us if any animal is in need of help.”

With not quite two months in the books for the new year, the number of patients suffering from red tide poisoning continues to rise. “As of February 24, CROW has admitted 52 patients diagnosed with brevetoxicosis, or red tide poisoning, in 2019,” added Dr. Bast.

Click here to watch a video of this patient's release!


CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.

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