Snowbird down!

Peace River Wildlife Center is starting off the new year with a bang.  Not the fireworks at midnight kind of bang.  That nonsense is way too scary for our resident birds and, truth be told, me.  I hate loud noises almost as much as they do.  Our big bang is more like the low hum of a busy beehive.  We are off and running with lots of admissions and unusual cases.

One of our first patients of 2016 is an American white pelican.  This species is one of our area’s true “snowbirds.”  Their breeding grounds are in the northwest United States and Canada.  While many of the migratory species have a population of residents that stay here year-round, the white pelican is found in Southwest Florida only during the winter.  This magnificent bird is roughly twice the size of our more commonly seen brown pelican, which is usually found along the shorelines.  The larger white pelican prefers to stay out in the harbor, frequenting areas around sandbars.

Another interesting difference between these closely related species is their feeding habits.  Brown pelicans will dive onto fish from heights as great as 60 feet.  The white pelican is more of a surface forager.  The white pelicans will often feed cooperatively, encircling fish and driving them toward each other or toward the shore where they are more easily captured.  The white pelican has also been known to steal fish from other birds, especially the double crested cormorant who will quite often try to eat a fish too large to easily swallow.

PRWC’s white pelican patient was very weak on admission.  He had been found out in Lemon Bay by a fishing guide who noticed the bird was not behaving normally.  When he was able to drive right up to the bird and scoop him out of the water, the guide knew the bird was in serious trouble.  He called one of our rescue coordinators in the Englewood area and arranged transportation to PRWC.  If this lucky bird survives, he can thank PRWC’s rescuer rangers, a group of people who went out of their way to help him when he was down.

On admission, the pelican was quite lethargic.  That evening he went from barely able to keep his head up to being flat out in his cage.  He couldn’t even blink his eyes.  Symptomatic treatment included lubrication for his eyes to avoid ulceration of the corneas and subcutaneous fluids to try to flush the toxins out of his system.  He appeared to be suffering from the effects of a toxic event, most commonly for this area either red tide or botulism.  Since the toxins from both of these sources can cause major outbreaks, we are on the alert for more cases.

There are low levels of red tide being reported in the area right now although it is usually more common in the summer.  Red tide is an algal bloom in the gulf, harbor and bays that produces a powerful neurotoxin called brevetoxin, which can cause paralysis in fish and birds.  It can also be aerosolized by wind and waves, causing respiratory symptoms in boaters and beachgoers.

Avian botulism is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, more often found in freshwater sources.  These bacteria also produce a neurotoxin that has the same basic effects on its victims: weakness, lethargy, difficulty controlling the nictitating membrane (third eyelid), loss of muscle tone, inability to hold up the head, walk or fly, and eventual paralysis.  These impairments can lead to the death by drowning, respiratory failure or vulnerability to predators.

After only a few days of treatment, our white pelican has made some remarkable progress.  While he is not out of the woods yet, he is regaining his ability to blink and hold his head up.  As he slowly regains his strength we will progress from subcutaneous fluids to oral fluids to gavaging (feeding through a tube placed into his stomach) a decreasingly dilute slurry of fish-based nutrition.  Eventually we will feed him whole fish.

As with all of our patients that will eventually be released, this pelican is not on display to the public.  We have to keep his contact with people to a minimum so that when he is ready to go back into the wild his behavior is not changed.  PRWC does have two American white pelicans on educational display that are not able to be released.  Both suffered catastrophic wing injures will keep them grounded for the rest of their lives.  They will live happily ever after in our loving care in our pelican pond enclosure.  Their names are Bebe and Big Mac.  Big Mac was named after our volunteer, Mac, who often officiates at the daily feeding of the pelicans at 2:30 each day.  Mac gives an interesting presentation about the habits of both the white and brown pelicans.  There is no better way to appreciate the size difference between the two species than to see them side by side and up close, so why not drop by for a visit?

by-Robin Jenkins, DVM

White pelican, day 2
White pelican, day 2
White pelican, on arrival
White pelican, day 4
White pelican, day 7
White pelican, day 7