CROW Case of the Week: Don’t Feed The Pelicans

dont feed the pelicansBrown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) can often be seen foraging for fish by plunging their oversized bills in shallow waters or looking for handouts around fishing piers and fishing boats. Anglers should not give in to feeding these large seabirds. It is against the law.

At CROW, medical staff members have reported a startling hike in cases involving fish obstructions in pelicans within a year’s time. These life-threatening blockages sometimes come with hook and monofilament line injuries.

“In 2019, we treated less than five pelicans in the entire year with large fish obstructing their throats. In just the first few weeks of this year, we have seen the same number of pelicans affected, which is an alarming increase,” said Dr. Robin Bast, CROW staff veterinarian. “Each year, we treat other seabird species for the same problem, but pelicans are the ‘poster child’ for this issue. In 2019, out of the 93 brown pelicans admitted, 40 percent of them had hook/line related injuries. In just the first few weeks of this year, we have already admitted 85 brown pelicans, 35 percent of which had hook/line related injuries. Again, this is a marked increase in cases for a readily preventable problem.”

Two pelicans were admitted on the same day last week. A juvenile brown pelican was admitted from the Sanibel Fishing Pier after being rescued with a large object stuck in its throat as well as a sighing lure stuck in its leg. The pelican regurgitated the object, a large piece of cut fish, while being transported to CORW. When the pelican arrived, it was bright, alert, responsive and well hydrated. Veterinarians anesthetized the pelican and removed the lure by pushing the end of the hook through the skin and cutting the barb off, then backing the rest of the hook out. The wounds were cleaned and will be monitored for infection.

Later that same day, a second pelican was admitted from the same spot with a very large fish stuck in its throat. Pelicans typically feed on small schools of fish that form near the surface of the water, including menhaden, mullet, anchovies, herring and sailfin mollies.

Unfortunately, the remains or carcasses of a fisherman’s catch that are tossed in the water are often larger than a pelican’s normal diet, and the larger bones and spines can puncture the bird’s throat or digestive tract. When pelicans are fed near fishing docks, marinas or cleaning stations, they congregate in large numbers looking for an easy meal. This change in behavior of “begging” or “scavenging” for scraps rather than hunting their normal prey brings them to areas where they are more likely to become entangled in fishing line or be accidentally hooked by a fisherman.

“Pelicans can sustain severe, even life-threatening injuries from ingesting abnormally large prey items- it’s not always as simple as removing the fish. Damage to the GI tract or blockage of the airway can result in death. Not only is it harmful to these birds, but it is against state law to feed pelicans. It also teaches abnormal behavior, encouraging pelicans to approach humans for food and becoming a nuisance,” said Dr.Bast.

Both pelicans are still in the clinic’s intensive care unit. “The first pelican is still in ICU. Due to the trauma to its esophagus, it took days for this bird to be able to keep food down without regurgitating it. It is still receiving medications to treat the irritated GI tract but should be able to move to an outdoor enclosure in the next few days,” said Dr. Bast. The second pelican also remains in ICU, being treated for an infected wound on its wing; this bird was “lucky” and did not require GI protectant medications since it has been able to keep food down on its own. It is our hope that both pelicans will ‘graduate’ to outdoor rehab enclosures within another five or seven days.

“If it all continues to go well for the pelicans, we hope they will be released in the next couple weeks after finishing medications and passing release qualification testing in the outdoor enclosures.”

Dr. Bast encourages anglers to visit “We support responsible fishing practices which include disposing of fish carcasses in a lidded container, as well as disposing of fish hooks and line in appropriate recycling containers,” she said. “Please check out the Mind Your Line website for more information on responsible fishing practices.”

**The second pelican (#20-371) was released 2/22

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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