Earlier this year there was a general sense of excitement over the flock of American White Pelicans that stopped here on their migratory flight back north. There were posts and pictures on Facebook; especially since the flock ended up hanging around our lake for about three weeks as opposed to the usual day-long layover. The flock was definitely on their way back to their nesting grounds in Canada after wintering in a large area ranging from the southern states all the way to Guatemala, but no one has really figured out why they stayed longer this time.
Maybe it’s a case where even the pelicans have discovered “the best kept secret in Northwest Missouri.” In any event, when it was time for the flock to finally depart, despite valiant efforts, they had to leave one of their members behind.

The primary witness to this situation was Joanne McFadin, who watched the daily activities of a group of pelicans in her cove from her window. The pelicans would gracefully float by her shoreline and routinely feed and scavenge at the water’s edge.

Note: Although the White Pelicans are larger and look more robust, they are not deep divers, like their Brown Pelican cousins. They prefer to feed from the top of the water, scooping up fish and vegetation in their big shovel shaped beaks. As Joanne reports, that’s exactly what a group was doing, swimming close to a dock, when two juveniles ventured underneath a dock!

It’s hard to perceive what goes on in an animal’s mind. It was easy enough for the young pelicans to swim under the dock, through the open area between the flotation tubs, but when it came to swimming back out, they simply couldn’t do it. Confused by the sudden darkness and confinement, they were unable to navigate the same route that had been their entry. And that’s when an unusual scene unfolded. Several adult pelicans attempted to go under the dock and pull the juveniles out, but apparently they resisted. It was then that Joanne witnessed the adult pelicans forming a line, a protective barrier in front of the dock, and they remained in that formation. Finally, a very big white pelican – much bigger than the rest: the alpha male of the group perhaps – appeared on the scene and dragged one of the juveniles out. But at a cost!
Apparently, the young pelicans were so freaked out by being trapped under the dock that they resisted rescue efforts by the adults.

According to Joanne, one of the juvenile pelicans disappeared, presumably dead, while the other, after being drug out from under the dock, had a broken wing! It was obvious: the bird’s wing was sticking straight out from its body. And that was only the beginning of the bird’s troubles. The flock had already hung around Lake Viking longer than usual; it was still a long flight back to Canada. It was time to go. There was no other option. The young pelican with the broken wing was simply left behind at Lake Viking!

So, anyway, that’s when Joanne called me. The young pelican had been abandoned and had become a pelican orphan. All alone and with a broken wing – Joanne wondered if it couldn’t be rescued?
I did some searching online and found that there was, indeed, a bird rescue facility in Kansas City, close to the zoo, for parrots mostly, and yes, they would take the pelican in. The catch was that I had to bring it to them.

Hmmm. I briefly thought about the prospect. I could just imagine scrambling around on the unstable footing of the shoreline, clinging to a big cage while trying to catch a large bird that was already an accomplished and battle-hardened survivor. True, the pelican had a broken wing, but I’d probably end up with some broken bones too. Or worse yet, if I attempted the capture, the bird would violently resist which might cause further injury. Nope, I don’t think so.

Next, we called a local Missouri Conservation officer. He talked to me and even came out to the lake for a look but arrived at the same conclusion. Sometimes man causes greater problems by trying to intervene with nature. We had tried, but we were going to have to let nature run its course.

An immediate worry was the fox population. For years, foxes have been sighted around Lake Viking, and there is a den on an unimproved lakefront lot close to where these events occurred. In the meantime, the pelican orphan was a pathetic sight: wandering around the shoreline with his broken wing or swimming in search of food, alone, and without companions. But then, in a rather remarkable development, the pelican orphan began making friends. Joanne reported seeing him hanging out with a couple of different herons in the area, and later, others reported him swimming around the lake with some geese. But, when a couple of weeks went by and there were no sightings, it was feared that a fox or another predator finally got him.

Then, miraculously, he appeared one day. Joanne saw him walking along the shoreline and she noticed that he had sort of a new-found swagger; not that lost and forlorn look but an aura that seemed more confident and “proud.” Once again, there were reports of him swimming around with his goose friends, farther out from the cove, in the main body of the lake now. One friend thinks he saw him around the dam.
The little guy has definitely proven to be a survivor. We had written him off a couple of times and now the pelican orphan has become an ethereal, almost mythical presence. He has definitely proven to be a survivor.

— by Troy Lesan