Charter boat captain Jim Sharpe was on his dock on Summerland Key last Friday when he noticed a brown pelican having difficulty eating little ballyhoo baitfish.
Each time the pelican tried to swallow, the ballyhoo would fall out of its large pouch and onto the ground. After about the seventh attempt, Sharpe said, he put a cast net over the water bird and made a gruesome discovery.
“It looked like the pelican’s throat had been cut with a knife,” Sharpe said. And it was not just one clean slice, but two cuts about six inches apart, creating a large hole in the pouch.
Since then, several more brown pelicans have been seen in the Lower Keys with the same injury. Maya Totman, director of the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue, said she fears that there is a serial slasher at work.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“We’ve seen a lot of ripped pouches, but never anything like this,” she said.
Veterinarian Don Harris, director of the Avian & Exotic Animal Medical Center in Miami, performed surgery on the pelican found by Sharpe. He agreed with Totman that this was no accident.
“I firmly believe it to be malicious,” Harris said.
He’s not certain exactly how the pelican was maimed. But he said it could have been done by someone reaching inside the bird’s throat and cutting the pouch from the inside.
Totman drove more than six hours round-trip Tuesday to take the bird to Harris, who performed the tricky repair of the pouch. Without the surgery, the bird would slowly starve to death.
Harris is used to Totman bringing him tough cases, including the time in August she brought a juvenile magnificent frigatebird with a fishing hook lodged in the wall of its esophagus.
But Harris had never before seen a case like this one. The lacerations were “almost like a Colombian necktie,” said Harris, referring to a method of murder that began during the Colombian civil war.
The bird’s pouch was cleanly lacerated from behind the point of the beak, all the way back to the glottis — about 10 inches. “The windpipe was dangling from the bird’s neck, almost like it was breathing out of a snorkel,” Harris said.
This type of inflicted damage is especially harmful to brown pelicans due to their dramatic style of hunting. They steeply dive from as high as 50 feet into water to capture small fish in their large throat pouches. They need as much as four pounds of fish per day.
Harris recited the first lines of a limerick about them: “A wonderful bird is the pelican. He holds more in his beak than his belly can.”
Brown pelicans are a fixture at Florida marinas and other coastal areas. While they are delightful to many, Sharpe says they are not beloved by all fishermen.
“They can be aggravating and try to grab your fish if you are fishing out of a boat,” he said. “But I can’t imagine anybody deliberately maiming them, even though they can be a nuisance.”
On Sunday, a fisherman reported seeing several live brown pelicans with their pouches cut near Venture Out resort on Cudjoe Key. It’s separated from Summerland Key by a bridge.
Totman said she went to the resort around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday and found a dead pelican with its throat slashed. While there, she also looked through binoculars to see at least four more pelicans flying with their pouches ripped.
She also talked to men fishing along the Niles Channel and Kemp Channel bridges in the Lower Keys. She said they told her they, too, had seen several injured pelicans.
On Wednesday, Totman notified wildlife refuge law enforcement officer Steve Berger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the problem. “He told me he was going out there today to see what’s going on,” Totman said.
In 1970, the federal wildlife service listed the brown pelican as an endangered species after environmental pesticide contamination almost wiped them out. In 1985, the population in Florida had rebounded to 60,000 and it was taken off the Endangered Species list in that part of its range. However, the brown pelican still is federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The brown pelican also is on Florida’s protected list as a species of special concern, due to habitat loss and numerous injuries from fishing hooks and lines. Totman said she has notified the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about what’s going on.
Totman has alerted fishermen, residents and tourists in the area to be on the lookout.
She also tried Wednesday to rescue the birds that already have been injured. She said she almost grabbed one that was bloody and in bad shape, but another boat scared it away. She will try again Thursday.
“If we don’t catch them soon they are going to die from starvation a terrible death,” she said. “This is so sad. So sad.”
In the meantime, the prognosis for the pelican found by Sharpe is good. To temporarily repair the pouch, Harris said, he “ran a continuous suture all the way up like lacing a shoe” so the bird could eat and become stabilized.
The bird will require at least one more visit and maybe more. Harris said he needs to cut away the scar tissue on both sides and fuse them together.