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Local Injured Brown Pelicans Nursed Back to Health at Sea World

An injuried Brown Pelican in North County spurred this writer's interest as to what happens after Sea World saves them and rehabs their injuries.

It was simply a flat-bed truck hauling a crate. Now how romantic, inspiring, emotional can that be? And, on top of that, it was an everyday worker-bee female who had been at this sort of thing for 14-years as a a Sea World employee.

Kim Peterson lifted the crate off the truck and oh-so-gently placed it on the grass.

“Do you get emotional when you do this sort of thing?” she was asked.

“Not sad at all,” she said, “I’m happy because this is why we do this. This is where they belong.” 

You see, Kim was releasing a brown pelican back into the wild after it had undergone rehabilitation for a couple of weeks. Nothing really special about this one. It just had gotten tangled up with a nasty fish hook and some infection resulted. But Kim and her staff had done their due diligence on the bird just like they had done with 11 others so far in 2013 and 276 they treated a year ago.

The Sea World facility is astonishing in its state-of-the-art simplicity. The 8,000 square foot complex includes a 2,600 square foot building that is at-the-ready for any environmental disaster that might occur and of course the occasional fish hook mishap. The building and a pair of 380 square foot aviaries that can house 200 sea birds are ready day and night. The facility, which sits at one corner of the Sea World park, opened in 2000 and is funded by Sea World and the statewide Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

“We are ready for any oil spill, but what most people don’t realize is that more birds are affected by the natural seepage of oil in the ocean than are ever involved in an oil spill,” Peterson explained. “When there is an oil spill, it’s tragic, but you see all those birds covered in oil at one time in one place rather than seeing them in different locations at different times.”

Peterson knows first-hand the tragedy to wildlife that an oil spill can cause. She was part of the Sea World team that helped treat injured birds after the Cosco Busan spill resulted in more than 58,000 gallons of oil being released into San Francisco Bay in 2007.

“The most difficult part of the experience was dealing with the reality of the sheer number of birds affected and how grave their condition was when I arrived,” she said. “The birds were dehydrated, malnourished and burned by the oil.”

The pelican that Kim was releasing two weeks was still around because of another battle its ancestors had fought and won in the 1070s. That’s when the brown pelican was headed for extinction after it was discovered that the pesticide DDT was causing the pelican eggshells to be too thin and incapable of supporting the embryo to maturity.  Fortunately, that discovery took place in time to save the species and it was just in 2009 that the brown pelican was taken off the endangered list.

And those are the flocks you see soaring overhead daily from North County all the way down into Mexico.

“They don’t have a leader at the top of a V per se,” Peterson said, “but imagine them like a bicycle pelaton flying along.”

Some pelican factoids:

-          They feed their young by regurgitation.

-          They are never found more than 20 miles out to sea or inland on fresh water.

-          The sexes are alike.

-          They have a hooked tip on the end of their bill.

-          They weigh up to eight pounds and their wingspan is approximately seven feet.

-          They dive head-first for food and sometimes laughing gulls torment them until they open their beaks and have their catch stolen.

-          They commonly live 25 years.

-          As graceful as they are in flight, that is how awkward they are walking because of the webbing between all four toes which also makes them strong swimmers.

-          They can eat up to four pounds of fish in a day.

-          They can dive for fish up to 100 feet.

-          Generally, they feed on northern anchovy, Pacific sardines and Pacific mackerel.

-          Brown pelican chicks are helpless and totally dependent on the parents for about 13 weeks.

So, with the crate now gently on the ground at a point on the water about a mile from Sea World, Kim unlocked the latch and opened the door. The brown pelican inside hesitated for a moment and then hopped out. Looking around, he/she took a hop and flapping its wings lifted off over the water, circled a couple of times and then headed out to sea and back into the wild … right where Kim wanted it to be.

NOTE: Should you see an injured brown pelican, first see if it can fly, and if not then there are two numbers you can call: The Sea World pelican hotline: 619-226-4223; or Wildlife Assist: 619-921-6044.

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