UF Shows a ‘Pelican’s Point of View’ to Protect the Seabirds

  • By:
    Stu Hutson – (352) 273-3569
  • Source:
    Bryan Fluech, fluech@ufl.edu, (239) 417-6310 x225

pelicans on boat
View Photo

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — At virtually every seaport mankind has ever built, you’re sure to see a pelican at some time or another. The birds roost on every continent except Antarctica. Their scythe-like beaks and snaking necks have adorned human art dating back thousands of years.

So, what’s the harm in a fisherman tossing a bit of fish to the nearby pelican kind enough to keep him company? What’s a scrap of flounder between friends?

“You may think you’re being nice, but you could be setting them up for a really painful death,” said Bryan Fluech, a Collier County Sea Grant extension agent with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Each year, hundreds of pelicans along Florida’s coastline meet a grisly end because of human activity. As part of a statewide IFAS educational program, including a new video titled “Pelican’s Point of View,” Fluech explains the do’s and don’ts of interacting with pelicans.

The video was produced in conjunction with the nonprofit organization Fish Florida.

“Maybe the scariest run-in you can have with a pelican is if it grabs your lure,” Fluech said. “On one end of the line, there’ll be a pelican that’s confused because this weird fish came with a hook that’s now stuck in its beak. On the other end of the line there’ll be a fisherman who’s probably even more panicked.”

Fluech said if an angler does catch a pelican, he should never cut the line.

“Your first instinct might be to cut the line if you get a pelican hooked,” he said. “But leaving that hook in there could be really harmful to the bird.”

The line can tangle around the bird or get caught up in mangroves where the bird roosts.

If possible, the fisherman should try to gently wrangle the bird into his grasp. He should then grab the pelican loosely by the beak before attempting to hold the bird like a football, with its wings pressed against its body.

A towel over the bird’s head will calm it and make it easier to handle. The fisherman should try to remove the hook by pushing it through the skin until the barb is visible. Snip the barb with wire cutters and then back the hook out before releasing the bird.

Birds that have swallowed a hook or are seriously hurt should be taken to the nearest rehabilitation facility.

Some pelicans apparently don’t learn from mistakes and have so many piercings they resemble punk rockers, Fluech said.

The greater evil of feeding pelicans is that they lose their fear of humans. A pelican with a natural fear probably won’t steal lures or engage in other dangerous behaviors, he said.

But “people-friendly” pelicans will often approach humans in an aggressive way that often ends with the bird being hurt. Or they crowd into small areas where their droppings can pose a health risk.

Besides helping the birds lose their fear, feeding the pelicans can hurt them. Scraps from fish large enough for fishermen to legally keep are almost always too big for pelicans to eat.

If a fisherman tosses a pelican scraps after cleaning a legal fish – or even just tosses them into the water where they can be easily scooped up – the big bones can tear the pelican’s pouch as it tries to swallow. Instead, fishermen should see if their dock or fishing site has disposal tubes, vertical PVC pipes that extend below the water’s surface too deep for pelicans to reach. If none exist, scraps should go into a trash can.

Anglers should also be sure to properly dispose of used fishing line. Each year, the Audubon Society and other groups remove thousands of pounds of fishing line from Florida’s coastline. As they do, they often find birds who strangled or starved after being tangled in the line, said Ann Hodgson of the Audubon Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries.

The new video is available via the IFAS Collier County Extension Web site. Those interested in a hardcopy DVD of the video should E-mail Fluech.

-30-