A Pelican in the Greenhouse

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While I was working on this post, I was having some difficulty thinking of a title.  Finally, I remembered a couple of books of short nonfiction stories by Jean Craighead George that I read when I was little.  Jean Craighead George grew up in a family of naturalists and always had unusual animals living in her house, and the stories had names like “An Owl in the Shower” and “The Skunk in the Closet.”  So, I decided to take my cue from one of my favorite childhood authors, because right now, at TreeHouse, we have a pelican living in the greenhouse.

The pelican demands fish.

This American White Pelican is one of my favorite animals that’s come to TreeHouse since I started working here.  He was left behind at Riverlands when the pelicans migrated through in the fall, and after he had been spotted walking along one of the roads in the sanctuary, we picked him up during the same trip as the trumpeter swan we released a couple of weeks ago.  It turned out that he was missing the tip of one wing, and was therefore unable to fly.  He was evidently doing OK, but we were concerned that if the lakes where he was spending most of his time were to freeze, he would be unable to feed himself and would be very vulnerable to predators.  Had we not been able to place him in a new home, we most likely would have returned him to the wild and let nature take its course.  Fortunately, the Saint Louis Zoo agreed to add him to their flock.  There is a mandatory quarantine period for any new animal at the zoo, however, and they are currently renovating their hospital building and so will not have quarantine facilities available until April.  So, we are keeping him in the greenhouse until then.

The reason that he’s my favorite has nothing to do with his personality—he’s actually quite pushy and a bit mean—or the ease of caring for him—he makes a huge mess and the whole building smells like fish if we aren’t careful.  It’s just that he’s so much fun to feed!  He gets a pound and a half of smelt each day, so whoever has animal care duties for the day gets to go into the greenhouse and toss the fish to him one by one and watch him catch them in his ridiculously over-sized bill.  If you have really good aim, the fish will just slide right down his throat and all he has to do is close his mouth!

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Trumpeter Swan Release

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The best part of working in wildlife rehab is always when you get to release an animal. It can take months of treatment before an injured animal is ready to return to the wild, and in many cases the animal doesn’t survive, or it is non-releasable due to the nature of its injury. These challenges make it all that much more rewarding when we are able to release one of our patients back into the wild.

Last week, we released two trumpeter swans at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The swans had been rehabilitating at our Brighton facility for around six weeks. One of them had evidently been injured by the animal—possibly a coyote—that killed its mate, and the other was the victim of stray shot from a dove hunter’s gun.

I was along for the retrieval of the swan that was shot, and I got to assist with its admission examination—definitely a multi-person endeavor when dealing with a bird the size of a trumpeter swan. My contributions included holding the swan while standing on a scale to find the bird’s weight (28 pounds, if I recall correctly) and cleaning the piece of lead shot we discovered embedded in the plush feathers of its neck. After that, I didn’t see the swan again until we released it last Wednesday, as it was placed in one of our Brighton facility’s outdoor rehab cages that we have yet to replicate at Dow.

On Wednesday, we brought a couple of Great Horned Owls, which had been recovering from what we suspect was West Nile Virus, to Brighton to build their strength back up in one of the flight cages, and while we were there we picked up the two swans for release. I should mention that it might be a bit misleading to say we “picked up” the swans—it wasn’t quite so easy as that! Ultimately it took four people to capture the two swans and get them into the crates in which we would be transporting them—even after one person manages to pick a swan up, a second person must manually fold the bird’s wings to keep it from pummeling its captor with them.

Despite one near escape when placing the swans in the crates and some incredibly strong winds, the release went perfectly smoothly. The two must have developed some bond while they were recovering together, because as soon as they were both out of their crates they began calling to each other, and they swam and flew together straight into the 55 mph gusts of wind all the way to the farthest corner of the pond, until all we could see was two white specks on the choppy water.