While we are often warned, it turns out feeding wildlife (even if one thinks they are helping or recycling in an environmental way) might not go without harm. My hands-on experience started when a few of us had pulled into our local boat launch to head out on the water and I noticed a brown pelican just standing behind the parked cars. This is not normal behavior for these active baitfish-eating beauties. As I walked up much closer the bird was not attempting to fly (another sign the bird was not well). Then I noticed a huge bulge in its neck and the closer I got I could smell a garbage-like odor coming from the pelican and knew our day would be a bit delayed.
I was able to contact Gail from Wildlife Inc. and she explained the bulge was most likely a large fish carcass or fish head stuck in its throat. She explained pelicans are designed to swallow small baitfish in numbers, not a large fish or worse, filleted open bones that can pierce their pouch and throat. While the pouch is large in size and expands the throat does not stretch in the same way. If you watch a pelican eat, it scoops up a pouch full of small baitfish and presses the water out of the pouch as it swallows. They do not, by nature, catch large fish.
That day Gail and Devon pulled a rotting fish head out of the pelican’s throat that looked and smelled about 2-3 days old. This bird was not able to eat for days and was weak. I found those carving fish there that toss carcasses to the birds assumed it was fine to do so.
I have often watched as pelicans, much like begging dogs, will not want to turn down any food no matter the size, and will struggle to get a large filleted fish carcass down. If that carcass does not go down over time they may be able to cough it back out. Otherwise, the bird will slowly weaken and die as it cannot continue to eat with the blockage. Local wildlife rescuers report this is not uncommon and they see and help in plenty of these cases.
The more I watched some fishermen at the boat ramps, the more birds I noticed struggling to swallow the large fish they tossed to them. The fishermen do not watch the bird; they simply go back to filleting their next fish. Some intentionally include these feedings to entertain their charter patrons while other fishermen (thankfully!) simply dispose of the carcasses properly which also reduces the birds begging and gathering habits.
Because of multiple experiences like this and with help from our wildlife and bird rescues, the county, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/ FWC, and others like myself that took interest, warning signs have been put up; better carving stations have been provided at some of our boat ramps with proper garbage cans and or carcass disposal tubes. The tubes take the carcasses down into the water, avoiding the birds’ reach. The tubes are not a perfect solution, but can help.
This is an ongoing effort. I see some fishermen comply, yet some still continue to toss their fillets to the birds. The FWC puts out an annual letter warning against this and posts signs and I believe our own teaching of this is very helpful. Respecting our protected brown pelicans that have been around our beautiful waterways for millions of years can be easy!
“Feeding pelicans is prohibited by law” (F.A.C. 68A-4.001)
Photos courtesy of Kari Presley and depositphotos.