This past week, we had the pleasure of attending the 2nd Annual Raptor Fest at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, or what I am now calling “Comic Con for Raptor Lovers.” ‘We’ are the crack team from Peace River Wildlife Center who loaded our vehicles and drove from Punta Gorda to St. Petersburg bright and early in the morning. Luna, our famous white screech owl, and Hootin’ Annie, the great horned owl, were accompanied by PRWC tour guide and Annie’s amazing handler John Hime, dedicated family member and volunteer for the day Susan Rhoads, wildlife rehabbers Amy Rhoads and Cara Brown, and myself-Anne Marie Witkowski, office administrator.
To back up a bit, we were excited for this event since Amy, Cara and I met some of the Boyd Hill volunteers and bird handlers at the Sarasota Medieval Fair last year. The fact alone that the volunteers were in period dress was enough to intrigue us, but we also soon learned that this dedicated group is extremely knowledgeable and experienced in their field. After we bombarded them with questions for far longer than their gracious responses called for, they told us about this upcoming event. This is also when we learned that Luna was way more famous than we knew about. You see, they had heard about him but not us, much to our dismay. As are many in the bird world, they were skeptical at first about whether or not we truly had found a white screech owl since screech owls normally have grey, brown, or red plumage for camouflage in trees and they have bright yellow eyes. Luna obviously does not have either of these colorings. He is leucistic. Leucism, for those of you who don’t read Doctor Robin’s articles regularly, is a condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents multiple types of pigment, including melanin, from being properly deposited on the bird’s feathers, skin, eyes, beak, and nails. In Luna’s case, he also does not have the trademark yellow eyes. Once the Boyd Hill team learned that PRWC in fact did have a leucistic bird, they became excited and hoped that they would have a chance to see him at their event.
We slightly underestimated just how enthusiastic people would be to meet Luna. We already knew how many people come from all over the world to meet Luna at PRWC and other outside events, but we (maybe Doctor Robin has experienced the Luna phenomenon) never knew how bird “nerds” (an expression of love, I promise) en masse would react. The moment we drove up to our table to unload our gear, Luna became surrounded by his adoring fans. It was like Comic Con for Raptors and Luna was Leonard Nimoy (Spock from Star Trek for those not in the know) moving among his admirers. People literally came out of the trees to meet our star. The Boyd Hill volunteers and other bird enthusiasts from local Audubon Societies and other raptor experts flooded our table. They were thrilled to see Luna and were extremely pleased to also meet Annie, whom I believe now has an entourage of her own. They should get Facebook pages. The event opened to the public and the Raptor paparazzi arrived with their telescopic lens, which surely has now made Luna look to be the size of the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.
Luna and Annie were not the only stars of the day. There were several local falconers and EarthQuest – an amazing organization that specializes in raptor educational programs, environmental exhibitors, rehabilitators from all over Florida, exhibitors such as local Audubon Societies, the Sierra Club, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and so many more. Remarkable raptors such as the Eurasian Eagle Owl, Harris’s Hawks, Red Tailed Hawks, a Short Tailed Hawk, a Finnish Goshawk, Red Shouldered Hawks, Great Horned Owls, Screech Owls, a Black Vulture, and an Amazing Andean Condor named Storm were present. EarthQuest and some of the local falconers participated in free flight demonstrations and discussed the revitalization of the Condor, a bird that once was on the brink of extinction. The sheer size of this New World vulture was mind boggling, and I admit I slightly feared for her handler. But I should not have feared, her handler was extremely experienced (as is essential for a falconer of any kind to be– experience and licensed!) and Storm was the ideal student.
Remember what I said about needing experience? That is paramount. I have to say a frightening number of people visiting our table said, “How can I get a screech owl. I want one.” I will gently remind everyone that wild birds are just that – wild. It requires skill, education, and several licenses (both state and federal) to ‘own’ a wild bird or wild animal of any variety. Educational birds are mostly birds that have been sick or injured and not releasable or birds that are available to licensed falconers and educators. Please do not take one home to raise yourself. If you find a sick, injured or truly abandoned bird or other wildlife life please contact a local rescue center or licensed wildlife trapper. Lecture over.
There was a schedule of activities throughout the day of the event. We would like to thank the overwhelming group of people who came to listen to Cara and John’s discussion about Luna and Annie. Numerous people stopped by our table after to ask more questions and learn about Peace River Wildlife Center in general. Many said that they would come down to Punta Gorda and visit us in the future. We certainly hope to see them here and bring a friend – or ten!
Thank you to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve and all the volunteers who made the event so great. It was very well organized and obviously a labor of love. We hope to attend again next year.
by – Anne Marie Witkowski
Paparazzi hounding Luna at Raptor Fest
Luna chilling at Raptor Fest
Andean condor, Storm, at Raptor Fest
The final counts have been tabulated and the winner is…Peace River Wildlife Center! We have added up all the patients seen over the 2014 calendar year and the total is 1,829. That is down slightly from 2013’s total of 1,946 and we see that as a success. Our goal this past year has been to try to educate the public what to do when they find a baby bird or mammal. We coach people over the phone, on the internet, during outreach programs and here at the Center when people visit us.
We have a wonderful pamphlet entitled, “Does this animal need your help?” Many young animals are found during their formative stages and brought to us by well-meaning folks who think the babies are in distress. Often the parents are nearby or the baby is just exercising a little independence as it prepares for life’s journey. The focus of our message is that leaving the baby with his or her parent is the best thing for that baby, the parent, and the area where the animals are located.
Looking at our intake numbers, it is apparent that we have started to get our message across and hope to continue to spread the word as we approach another baby bird season. It’s not that we are being lazy. Okay, well, it isn’t ONLY that! Rearing baby birds properly is time consuming and expensive. Every baby bird that comes into PRWC needs to be fed every 15 minutes on average, from sun-up to sun-down. We have different formulations of food for each species and age. The hatchlings are housed in incubators for the first few weeks of their lives. The nestlings are moved to indoor cages as they start to perch and walk. The fledglings are then moved outside to pre-release habitats as they achieve more independence.
Worst of all, try as we might, we cannot teach the young birds what they would learn from their parents in the wild. We have a few permanent resident birds that serve as foster parents to conspecific babies when they come in, but even that is limited in its scope. As natural as we try to make the habitats, it is not the same as being in nature. We make every effort to expose the babies to the types of food they will find when released, but that is not always possible either. We have to balance the bird’s nutritional needs with the availability of foods. We purchase mealworms, crickets, mice, and a variety of fruits, greens and vegetables but the birds would be eating a huge variety of other things in the wild.
Many of the behaviours exhibited by wild animals, including birds, are instinctual, but there is no substitute for a baby watching and mimicking the actions of the parent. When we get a fledgling bird in that is a few days away from flight in the wild, his progress is set back by weeks to months by being in captivity. Just because he wasn’t in the nest doesn’t mean he wasn’t being taken care of. His parents would have taken care of him on the ground and as he quickly learned to perch back up in the tree or bush. They would have provided food in addition to what he was learning to find on his own.
People who find baby birds or mammals on the ground or nests that have been disrupted are encouraged to call PRWC for further instructions. If you can’t call, check out the “Found a Baby Bird/Mammal, Now What?” links on the education page of our website.
We are grateful to our supporters for bringing injured wildlife to us for treatment, but let’s try to leave the babies in the wild unless they are truly orphaned.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Baby Virginia Opossum
Baby Killdeer with a mirror image to keep him company
Mama Moscovy Duck and Babies, mother knows best
Peace River Wildlife Center sees a number of injured pelicans every year that have (pardon the pun) tangled with fishermen and their gear. Most of these encounters do not end well for the birds and many of them could be easily avoided. There are signs around many of the popular fishing spots—docks, piers, etc. These signs point out some practices that can help wildlife from being accidentally injured.
Do Not Feed Pelicans Sign
Feeding pelicans leftover bait or carcasses after fileting your catch teaches the birds to associate people with food. And even though the birds will take and try to swallow whatever is being thrown to them, quite often the fish heads and bones get stuck in their throats. Pelicans swallow a whole fish naturally head first and the bones are surrounded by soft flesh. And they will only go after a fish of an appropriate size. If you throw them a disembodied head they may think they can swallow it, only to find out too late that they cannot, because it is stuck in their throat. Bare bones not surrounded by flesh can also tear through their pouches.
Pelican pouch stretched out of shape after removal of large fish head
We have seen pelicans with large fish heads stuck in their throats. This picture shows how badly the pelican’s pouch and throat were stretched out after we removed a large fish head. It took many days for the skin to get its normal shape and strength back before the pelican could eat again.
Torn pelican pouch
This pelican’s pouch may have been cut by discarded fishing tackle or a large fish skeleton the bird tried unsuccessfully to swallow.
Lure in pelican bill
Tackle in pelican foot
Laughing gull in tackle
Another important tip is to not cut line that has gotten caught in trees or on a bird. Reel in as much line as possible, get as close to the tree before cutting line, or pull the bird in and unwrap the line or remove the hook before releasing the bird. Not only pelicans get caught up in discarded fishing tackle.
One of southwest Florida’s most amazing attributes is the abundance and splendor of nature. Whether you are fishing, kayaking, photographing, or hiking, we all depend upon each other to help keep this area a great place to be where the wild things are.
Peace River Wildlife Center admitted an American White Pelican on January 5, 2015. He was brought to us by one of our senior rescuers, Mark Kramer. (Not that Mark is a senior citizen. Remember back in school when being a “senior” was a good thing?) This young man (by southwest Florida standards, at least) has been rescuing injured birds for us since 2002. He is one of our only volunteers who makes aquatic rescues, going out on his 14-foot Caribe rigid inflatable boat to get pelicans in distress out on Charlotte Harbour.
Mark and his wife Martha use fish to coax a hungry bird that has not been able to feed itself because of its injuries. Unfortunately, this technique also attracts hungry juvenile pelicans who are just too dumb and lazy to find their own lunch. When I classify these birds as dumb and lazy, please understand that I mean them no disrespect. I am fully aware that the dumbest and laziest animal species on this planet is unquestionably man. (Well, I am anyway.) We have a diagnosis for this condition—DBS: Dumb Baby Syndrome.
Often Mark will bring in multiple “injured” juvenile pelicans with such symptoms as low body weight, drooping wings, limping, etc. On exam we can find nothing at all wrong with some of these birds. I could swear though at times the little devils have a glint of a smile in their eyes, as if they are getting one over on us. They get an easy meal, a boat ride and a free stay at the luxury resort PRWC for a few days while we fatten them up and make sure they are otherwise healthy before releasing them again.
A few weeks ago, Mark brought in one brown and two white pelicans. Those birds were all very weak, thin and had little to no blink response. These symptoms are often associated with a natural toxic event like red tide or botulism. Unfortunately, despite aggressive supportive care, all of those birds died. So when Mark called to say he was bringing in more pelicans we cringed. We were not sure if we should expect more dying birds or DBS patients who were just faking their injuries.
Mark had mentioned a broken wing, but sometimes people assume a wing is fractured because it is being held at an odd angle, but on exam the bones appear to be fine. This time Mark’s diagnosis was spot on. While the bird was being carried into our surgical ward, the tip of his right wing was still in the back of Mark’s truck. It doesn’t get much more broken than that.
It is hard to say what caused this bird’s injury, but he may have collided with a boat. The radius and ulna of his right wing were snapped in half and the distal (outer) portion of the wing had been dragging through the water for a while. By the time he got to us at PRWC, the ends of the bones were as clean as if they had been prepared for display at a museum. After the traumatic amputation stump was cleaned up surgically, the pelican healed quickly. He initially convalesced with two hungry juvenile brown pelicans. When they were released the white pelican was ready to move out to our pelican pond.
Obviously not used to sharing his resources with such a broad range of species in a relatively small area, he immediately snapped at and drove off a visiting great blue heron. He quickly settled in to the routine of eating thread herring being tossed to him by our volunteers and following the rest of his new flock into the enclosure in the late afternoon each day for nighttime safety. Bebe, our female white pelican, has accepted him and the two of them can be seen hanging out together in our pelican pond habitat.
We need a name for our newest resident. Since he is considerably larger than Bebe, we believe our new white pelican is a male. We will be taking preliminary name suggestions for a week or two, then set up voting stations for the top few names. This is how we selected the name Luna for our resident leucistic eastern screech owl. The contest was a lot of fun and gave our supporters and extra measure of “ownership” by getting them involved with the process. If you have any ideas for names, call or email them to PRWC. Better yet stop by and deliver your submission in person after checking out all of our residents.
We will have voting stations set up by our next Sunset Celebration on Friday, February 13 from 5-7p.m. Come out and vote for your favourite name. Each $1 donation counts as one vote. We will also have the stations set up at PRWC during regular visitors hours, seven days a week from 11a.m. to 4p.m. And we will have regular updates on our Facebook page. Help us name our new pelican!
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
White pelican recovering from wing amputation
White pelican in his new habitat
Mark Kramer rescuing a white pelican
It is with a heavy heart that I must inform Peace River Wildlife Center’s supporters that our male American white pelican, Bobo, passed away recently. He had been suffering from an unusual condition in his throat for years. Bobo transferred to PRWC from the Wildlife Center of Venice July 28, 2008. He had been treated there for a broken wing and ended up with his left wrist frozen in place so he was not able to fly since he could not fully extend it. Upon admission here he had a little plaque in his throat that resolved fairly quickly. Over the years the condition waxed and waned, seemingly seasonally, regardless of how we treated (or didn’t.)
We submitted tissue samples for culture and sensitivity testing and biopsies for pathology. None of the results were ever conclusive as to the nature of the condition or a specific and successful treatment plan. Each year we tried treating with systemic and topical antibiotics, antifungals, anti-inflammatories, parasiticides, and multiple combinations of all of them. Some years we treated merely with tincture of time. Each year the condition would eventually get better, but then come back again the following year. And each year it seemed to cover a slightly larger area and last a little longer.
This year the overgrown areas of tissue encroached on Bobo’s glottis and threatened his ability to breath. One of our local veterinarians, Dr. John Rand of The Animal Clinic in Port Charlotte, helped with an aggressive treatment plan trying to debride the area to help keep Bobo more comfortable. Despite all of our efforts Bobo succumbed to the disease. The white pelican’s average age in the wild is about 10 years. Since Bo was an adult when he came in, we have no idea how old he was. He lived a great life here at PRWC and we will miss him.
Although Bobo had been separated from his “flock” out by PRWC’s pelican pond in preceding weeks while we treated him, he had recently been placed back out in the pond area so he could be surrounded by his buddies. PRWC also has a dozen brown pelicans as permanent residents that cannot be released due to their inability to fly. As our only white pelican at the time, Bobo had been towering over his little brown cousins since his arrival in 2008.
In 2011 we admitted another white pelican, a female we named Bebe. As soon as she was placed in the pelican yard Bobo ran toward her at breakneck speed, which for a huge bird on stumpy little legs is really not all that fast, but he scared the heck out of her. He obviously meant her no harm, but she just as obviously didn’t realize that. She was terrified of him for weeks. He would chase her around and around the pond. Eventually she warmed up to him and the two of them became inseparable. Bebe was with Bobo when he passed away. We are keeping a close eye on her to make sure she continues to eat and act normally.
We do have a little surprise for her in a week or so. Although PRWC can go years without getting a white pelican as a patient, we admitted another one in the days preceding Bobo’s death. We will introduce this new resident in the weeks to come and hopefully he or she will help fill the void in Bebe’s heart and ours as we wish Bobo a swift journey over the rainbow bridge.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Bobo and Bebe in breeding plumage
Bobo protecting Bebe