The brown pelican is a large, coastal-dwelling seabird that spends its time hunting for ocean-going fish from heights as high as 65 feet. They are a common sight along the California coastline, yet more and more seem to be finding their way to Arizona every year. Simply put, these majestic birds are getting lost. Brown pelicans, despite their eleven pounds of body weight and six-foot wingspans, are no match for the powerful summer storms that annually buffet the Pacific shore. Those storms blow them off course, so far, in fact, that they occasionally end up an entire state away. A pelican in the desert is next to helpless, confronted by an arid climate and unable, try as they might, to find their way home. There’s no ocean to be had here, and without that source of food, it’s only a matter of time before heat and hunger prove fatal. Yet some of these pelicans fall prey to self-inflicted injures, long before they begin to starve. If you have experience living in warm climates, then you have likely noticed how the summer heat reacts with asphalt, radiating off the blacktop in a visible, shimmering mirage. This tangible display of warmth creates a tantalizing illusion, one that, to a flying bird desperate to find the ocean, can easily be mistaken for glittering waves. Pelicans thus confused end up diving down to what they think is safety, only to end up with a forceful impact against an unforgiving road or parking lot.
Many of the pelicans that get stranded in Arizona, whether starving or injured, fortunately end up at Liberty Wildlife, thanks to concerned members of the public. After all, a pelican in the road or hanging out by the golf course pond is bound to attract attention. While pelicans would normally seem outside the comfort zone of a rehab facility centered in a landlocked state, the specifics of their care aren’t far removed from the many lake-bound water birds we take in. That said, they do require special treatment to beat the heat, namely a light mist delivered by hose during the warmest parts of the day. Beyond that, they need plenty of shade and plenty of water, both to drink and to float in. A kiddy pool provides a miniaturized ocean for the pelicans to enjoy, and also doubles as their feeding area. While we can’t replicate the plummeting dive that they use to ambush unsuspecting prey in the ocean, this miniaturized approach is nonetheless a step toward putting them at ease by allowing them to “fish” for themselves. One thing we have noticed with pelicans, which differs from the freshwater birds we treat, is that they are loath to eat motionless fish. Simply adding thawed food isn’t enough: they practically demand a more authentic experience. To compensate for this, Liberty volunteers have been working on means to keep the fish moving, using methods like a pond pump to make the water, and thus the fish, circulate, or even patiently rigging the hose to keep a current going. While a motionless fish gets ignored, the moment the fish start swirling, the pelicans eagerly hop on the edge of the pool and gobble them up as they float by.
The final step of their rehabilitation is to arrange transportation to bring them back to where they belong. For the pelicans, coming here is an unintended detour away from the habitat they depend upon. For Liberty staff and volunteers, the arrival of these pelicans means not only more birds in need of aid, but a rare opportunity to glimpse a stunning creature that, in the desert at least, you really don’t see every day.