The smallest Pelican: a story of survival!
Every oil spill International Bird Rescue responds to seems to be symbolized by at least one of the species that it impacted. In 1996, the King Eider symbolized the Pribilof Islands’ Citrus spill, in 2000 the African Penguin symbolized South Africa’s Treasure spill, and in 1999 the Snowy Plover symbolized Oregon’s New Carissa spill. For 2010’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico the world took note of the Brown Pelican.
Despite the sheer numbers of Pelicans we cared for in the Gulf, a few of the individuals really stood out. While Pelican 895 became famous in the HBO Documentary, Saving Pelican 895, another Brown Pelican was distinguished for its unusual circumstance and size. Despite the fact that we usually call our patients by numbers, when we received this bird we referred to him as Micro-Peli because he was less than 2 weeks old and one of the tiniest babies that we have ever cared for.
Micro’s age presented some problems. I can remember Dr. Erica Miller of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research showing me Micro when he first came in. We both looked at each other and said, “Oh %$#*,” because we knew that keeping this little guy wild, with all the people running around the center, would be a challenge. Baby Pelicans see anything that moves as a potential source of food and can just as easily habituate to a human, a dog, or a lampshade as a Pelican. We took serious precautions to avoid letting him connect people with fish, which was especially difficult, as he had to be hand fed. When it came time to teach Micro to eat fish out of a dish, we were further challenged, as he only wanted to interact with things that moved. We worried about Micro throughout his almost two-month stay at the Louisiana center as signs of his habituation toward people persisted.
The International Bird Rescue and Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research team accomplished Micro’s rehabilitation against great odds. We had to consider whether it was in his best interest to place him in a zoo due to the fact that he was demonstrating acute habituation behavior toward people. The staff collectively decided that we would pull out all the stops to ensure that this bird was a wild, human-avoiding bird by the time he was ready for release.
Micro was eventually able to eat out of a dish and stay with older baby Pelicans, which helped him to retain his identification with his species. As he got larger and began to swim and play with his cage mates, they were given a daily dose of live minnows to encourage foraging and teach them to recognize live fish. The hunting instinct took over and they went crazy chasing minnows. By the time Micro was full size, at 2 to 3 months old, he seemed more independent, semi-wild and certainly able to identify fish as a meal. This signaled that he was ready to be released. Micro was fitted with a colorful plastic leg band with an ID number, and returned to the wild on Louisiana’s Raccoon Island on October 6, 2010.
The day he was released one of our response team members, Patrick Hogan, let me know that Micro was behaving like a wild, healthy and energetic young Pelican – not at all interested in people.
Almost a year and a half later, we have some exciting news from Dr. Miller, who receives data on bird sightings from Deepwater Horizon: Micro has been sighted 3 times since his release! Micro was first spotted and captured in Port Isabel, Texas on January 8, 2011. Dr. Miller says that the letter she received said that he was “caught, injured,” but there was no further information. He must have been released, as he was seen twice this past August, on the 4th and 9th, back on Raccoon Island! That’s a survival of at least 307 days in the wild! We look forward to hearing when he is spotted again.
Thank you to the entire team, for taking the extra time to ensure his survival and successful return to the wild – every bird matters, and our hard work paid off!
International Bird Rescue