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How a vet school staff and volunteers saved a young Brown Pelican

young Brown Pelican
Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine student volunteers (from left) Robert Hutto, Abigail Dial, and Samantha Mintz with Peli Brown after they assisted in taking a radiograph, a commonly used diagnostic tool in veterinary practice. Photo courtesy Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference, which took place in December 2022, ended in an agreement by hundreds of countries to protect 30% of the planet and 30% of degraded ecosystems by 2030. While countries work toward developing a framework to achieve these goals, it’s equally as important for organizations, institutions, and individuals to do their part to support wildlife and ecosystem conservation efforts. Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (Ross Vet), located on the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, is doing just that through its recent efforts that saved a Brown Pelican, the national bird of the islands and once an endangered species.

In August, a pelican was brought to Ross Vet for treatment after a group of students discovered it was being chased by local dogs and unable to fly. The juvenile bird, which became affectionately known as “Peli Brown,” was emaciated and dehydrated. Several abnormalities were evident through blood work.

Kimberly Stewart, DVM, MS, PhD, associate professor of exotic and avian medicine at Ross Vet and founder of the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network, was joined by Andre Escobar, MV, MSc, PhD, Diplomate BCVA, assistant professor of anesthesiology at Ross Vet, to lead a team of 50 volunteers to rehabilitate Peli Brown by teaching him basic life skills necessary for survival in the wild, flight training to build strength and endurance, and training to capture and consume live fish prey.

Ross Vet normally treats pet cats and dogs, so caring for a wild bird was a big adjustment. In fact, the pelican was the first wild bird at Ross Vet since a shorebird was treated in 2014. The staff hopes that its care of Peli Brown will be the beginning of new opportunities for Ross Vet.

Stewart and Escobar trained Ross Vet students about proper restraint techniques for a pelican, appropriate medical treatments, and administration of medications for a pelican’s anatomy, and assisted with Peli Brown’s daily feeding, flight training, and tasks as simple as collecting salt water for its enclosure. The bird gained 2.4 pounds, doubling his body weight, and he became adept at flight and capture of live prey. Peli Brown was released in late November in the area of White House Bay on the Southeast Peninsula of St. Kitts.

Watch for a young Brown Pelican with a blue band

Now, Ross Vet encourages birdwatchers and residents in the coastal areas of St. Kitts and Nevis to be on the lookout for Peli Brown. A juvenile bird with a brown neck and head and grayish bill, Peli Brown can be identified by a blue band placed on his right leg with the registration number G19. The identifier will enable the volunteer team to continue monitoring his progress in the wild to gain valuable information on his movement. The band was donated by Scott Rush, PhD, MS, BS, an associate professor at Mississippi State University’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center.

Peli Brown feeds on live tilapia obtained from a local farm. Photo courtesy Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine

“When I first examined Peli Brown at Ross Vet’s campus, he was weak, emaciated, and dehydrated, and a number of abnormalities were evident in his blood work,” said Stewart. “His second chance at life is owed to the awareness and quick action of the Ross Vet students who noticed that he couldn’t fly and rescued him as he was being chased and harassed by dogs, near their off-campus living complex.

“Field and rehabilitation settings are one of my favorite settings for student interaction,” Stewart added. “Wildlife cases require quite a bit of thinking outside of the box to accommodate appropriately because we are not in a controlled environment with predictable behaviors, schedules, and outcomes. You really get to see the creative and endurance side of the staff you are working with. It requires significant investment of time and strength — both physical and emotional — and takes a unique personality to endure and persevere.”

300+ volunteer hours

Students who were caring for Peli Brown had a wide variety of responsibilities. Stewart and Escobar trained the students with specific wildlife rehabilitation tactics to meet Peli Brown’s juvenile needs. As the rehabilitation progressed throughout the semester, some students assisted in Peli Brown’s diagnostics and radiographs with Gilda Rawlins-Vaughan, DVM, diagnostic imaging instructor and lead for imaging at Ross Vet’s small animal clinic. Over 300 volunteer hours were spent with Peli Brown throughout the three-month rehabilitation on campus.

After being trained to capture live prey, Peli Brown fishes for his food at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine’s aviary on campus. Photo courtesy Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine

“The volunteers we had were great, and their level of engagement and dedication were inspiring,” said Stewart. “I enjoyed our daily interactions and watching them engage in new experiences while developing skills with a species they do not usually have exposure to in veterinary school. Collaboration is key to success with these species, and the willingness and effort put in by all parties was truly rewarding. I hope we can use the information gained through this case to facilitate further research and treatment of this species.”

Brown Pelicans are gregarious birds that congregate in big flocks for most of the year, and Stewart said the release location had been selected with this and other factors in mind. She noted while he could possibly be anywhere on island, birdwatchers would most likely spot him on the Caribbean side of the island and should keep their distance.

“This species is a symbol of the success of wildlife and ecosystem conservation. On behalf of Ross Vet, we are grateful to have played a small role in the continuation of this process through the rehabilitation of Peli Brown.”

Stewart said oil spills, habitat loss, entanglement, and decreased prey availability remain some of the threats facing the pelican.

“As with all wildlife species, ensuring we are doing our best to maintain a healthy environment is an important way to assist these animals. The SKSTMN has monofilament recycling bins on the island that can be used for recycling monofilament line to prevent wildlife entanglement and also provide a location for hook disposal.”

Today, the Brown Pelican is St. Kitts and Nevis’ national bird. The country is working to develop systems for population monitoring in seabird and shorebird species. No official estimate of the local pelican population exists, but it may be in the hundreds. Partners in Flight estimates the global population to be 370,000 birds. The species was declared endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1970; after decades of habitat and population restoration, it was delisted in 2009.

Sightings of Peli Brown in the wild can be reported to the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Hotline at +1 (869) 764-6664, or on the SKSTMN Facebook page.

Thanks to the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine for providing this article.

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