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American White Pelican Finds Help

An uncommon species makes a full recovery at SFWC

  • The pelican enjoying some outdoor time after a week in SFWC's ICU. SFWC

  • The pelican enjoys SFWC's new outdoor Seabird Habitat. SFWC

  • The pelican hesitantly leaves his carrier. SFWC

  • The pelican swims out into the waters of South Florida's wet lands after being released. SFWC

  • The pelican flies off to join its new flock in the wet lands of South Florida. SFWC

On April 25, South Florida Wildlife Center took in a sick American White Pelican. The bird was found by a concerned citizen and eventually brought to SFWC once it was determined it needed veterinary care. It is common for SFWC to take in injured pelicans, but they are generally Brown Pelicans, which are resident to the area year-round. White pelicans are less common in the South Florida area—typically only seen here in winter and more likely to be seen on the west coast of Florida.

Because of their rarity in the area, we were surprised to see the bird at our facility, but were more concerned about his unusual symptoms. He was having difficulty holding his head up and was very weak and depressed. In addition, he had ulcers on his cornea that would require intensive treatment. Because of this, SFWC vets suspected botulism poisoning (caused by bacterium which occurs in areas with stagnant water that allow the bacteria to proliferate) or some other toxin. The bird was admitted to our Intensive Care Unit and immediately started on medication to combat the toxin and fluids to maintain his hydration.

Although the pelican was in a weakened state, our veterinarians felt his chances were good. The next day, he showed a little improvement and was having less trouble holding his head up, but was still very depressed. However, within a few days and after multiple medications and tube feedings, things started to turn around. He was much more alert, sitting on his hocks and trying to bite—a good sign in our eyes. He began to eat and gain weight, and even showed interest in swimming and exercising.

After only a week in the ICU, our feisty patient was moved to SFWC’s new outdoor Seabird Habitat. This area provides recovering birds with deep pools for swimming and diving and the ability to exercise their wings in the aviaries. Allowing them to mimic their natural behaviors can speed up recovery time significantly.

Although our doctors felt he was progressing nicely, SFWC’s Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation, Dr. Renata Schneider, was concerned about “beating migration” for the pelican’s release—most birds of this species head back up north in the spring, and she wanted to be able to release him in time for him to travel with others of his species. Luckily, we were able to find a small population of American White Pelicans (5-10 birds) who live year-round at a Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) in Palm Beach County.

STAs are constructed wetlands, which reduce the amount of phosphorous that reaches the Everglades through runoff. This allows sawgrass growth to replace the invasive growth of cattails, eventually returning the ecosystem of the Everglades to a healthier condition.

Three weeks after being admitted to SFWC’s ICU, the pelican was released back into the wet lands. On the day of his release, he could see the other pelicans through the carrier door and banged his beak against it as if to ask for the door to be opened. Once we obliged he slowly waded out into the waters and without looking back flew gracefully to join the flock in the middle of the wet lands.

Although it is uncommon for us to treat this species at our facility, we do see them during their spring and fall migration, so if you find one in distress, please call the South Florida Wildlife Center at 954-524-4302 for help.

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