A wonderful bird is the Pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week!
But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?
The Pelican was penned in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt, an American poet and humourist, although the poem is more often credited to Ogden Nash who included it in his 1940 anthology, The Face is Familiar. Plagiarism is a dirty word.
So too is cruelty.
Such is the risk for pelicans, and other birds on St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. Arid on the east end and verdant on the west – only 28 miles apart – natural beauty is surrounded by soothing Caribbean waters. There are though beasts who hide along the bays and inlets ready to shoot down birds skimming with magisterial solemnity above these waters.
What possible sport can that be?
There are eight species of pelicans but here on our island we have the Brown Pelican – a dull name for an august bird whose white head above a chestnut nape and brownish-silver feathers remind me of a be-gowned and wigged judge. They are ungainly as they take flight, flapping their wings and slapping the water with big webbed feet, but as they find thermal currents they can soar as high as 10,000 feet. No wonder the Wright Brothers studied avian aerodynamics. Technical aspects of a pelican are remarkable. The air pockets in their bones are connected to respiratory airways lying under the throat, breast and wings and aid buoyancy, allowing the birds to keep their wings horizontal and steady.
“Almost like bubblewrap,” says Toni Lance, artist, photographer, certified falconer, licensed bird rehabilitator, and founder of the St Croix Avian Sanctuary.
Meet Gabriel, an adult of uncertain sex but of breeding age, shot down a week ago. Due to the location of the pellet surgery was not an option. There was no sign of a break and so Ms Lance is attempting to rehabilitate the bird at the Sanctuary on St Croix’s south shore. She moves the wing but it remains unwieldy, unable to be lifted. She sprays Gabriel with water to encourage preening which in turn helps get oil back into his feathers. The pelican dutifully preens. His appetite is good. If not for the shot wing Gabriel would be flying free as a bird, preparing to mate and sustain his species.
The Brown Pelican – clever birds that they are – stuns its fish by plunging headfirst into the ocean. The airsacs in its wings lessen the impact and bobs the bird back to the surface to float, rather like a cork. If the waters are shallow or churned, pelicans have a back-up system for fishing. Unlike other birds, pelicans have four toes rather than the standard three, which allows effective paddling whilst using that huge pouched beak as a scoop, which they then drain by tipping their head back. It is this manoeuvre that makes them most vulnerable to the thieving habits of others, mainly seagulls, who are wont to steal fish right out of the mouths.
Gabriel, irrespective of sex, is a breeding adult. Unlike other areas, St Croix tends not to have large squadrons of pelicans but rather three or four flying in formation. If Gabriel cannot be rehabilitated in the next few weeks, and this is by no means certain, he / she will be euthanized. That means the loss of probably two healthy young a year for the next twenty years.
You do the maths.
Avian rehabilitation is not all a flying success. Ms Lance has, over the years, seen many birds soar to freedom but there have also been those unable to be released. Some, such as a peregrine falcon, she has used as aids in an effort to educate children about the importance of treasuring our resources, and honouring the freedom of flight; others with no chance of survival in the wild – often the ones shot by ignorant and brutish people – are euthanized.
Where is the outrage? The chance of the perpetrator of this crime being caught is remote and, sadly, it is only a matter of time before the St Croix Avian Sanctuary is again called upon to rescue a shot bird.
I am assured by Ms Lance that Gabriel is, like most pelicans, a good-natured bird. They have been around for many years – the oldest fossil found is dated thirty-million years ago – and they have remained remarkably similar, if somewhat smaller. They were, in medieval Europe, considered a symbol of sacrifice due to the belief a pelican would, if no other food was available, wound her own breast to feed blood to her young.
The wound in Gabriel’s wing cannot be mended by an infusion of blood. It may not mend at all. The chance of seeing this magnificent bird fly again is slim. Grounded and unable to swim in seawater, Gabriel’s paddled feet, even on a padded perch, will break down with pressure sores. An inhumanity that cannot be countenanced.
“I’d need to be set up like Seaworld to keep pelicans in captivity,” Ms Lance explained. Disgust should be filtered through towns, school halls and social media at the wanton cruelty and ‘sport’ of shooting an innocent bird, animal or human. There is too much of it.
“A wonderful bird is the pelican….”
But this is not a humorous story. Gabriel’s life is likely to be short. A sanctuary can only do so much. Birds have to deal with the elements. That’s enough. That’s natural. Getting shot is not.