Teamwork of Strangers Saves Gulfport Bird

A rusted hook and a length of fishing line dangle from the chest area of a pelican located near the Gulfport Marina. Recently, a team of Good Samaritans worked together to rescue the injured bird. Photo by Eagle Finegan.

Between those using social media, people on the scene and a telephone call to a local non-profit, a caring team of many bird lovers recently saved one lucky Gulfport pelican.

“I put the call for help out” on Facebook at 4:38 p.m. on Wednesday, January 2, said Eagle Finegan, a local photographer who was working in the area of the marina.

People replying to the social media post within minutes made suggestions, including calling a non-profit rescue group called Birds in Helping Hands, based in Seminole.

“I had never heard of Birds in Helping Hands,” said Finegan. “When I called them, Shelley answered and was so wonderful.”

Shelley Vickery, director, along with Linda Mercado are co-founders of the group.

Within 15 minutes, two trained rescuers arrived with a big catch net and portable animal carrier, said Finegan. Jim and Mel Mangene from the rescue group had been given the case.

Before the pair arrived, Charles Thompson and Margo Rose, both of Gulfport, worked together to keep the mature pelican on land.

Thompson, one of two fishermen cleaning their catches near the marina, was the person who first noticed the bird had an issue with a fish line and a rusty hook hanging from its chest area. He fed the pelican bite-size pieces of raw mullet fillets – not fish skeletons or heads – to keep its attention while Rose used a beach towel she brought with her to block the animal’s line of sight back to the water.

The bones from fish skeletons or heads can cause physical harm to birds and even lead to death, said Vickery.

Rose had seen Finegan’s post on social media and drove to the marina to help.

“I am not one that could ever see anything suffer at all – wildlife in particular,” said Rose. “It was the fourth time I have witnessed people from Birds in Helping Hands during a rescue. They are wonderful.”

Both Vickery and Mercado have been active in Tampa Bay area bird rescue efforts for several years. On May 2, 2017, the pair decided to officially start their own non-profit organization to offer expanded hours for rescue services and to maximize relationships with five local veterinarians and other like-minded groups like the Raptor Center of Tampa Bay, based in Brandon.

For instance, when needed, birds are taken to Bush Gardens in Tampa for advanced care treatments, medicines or surgery, said Vickery. As of Wednesday afternoon, the pelican was in surgery at Busch Gardens because fishing line has caused serious injury to one of its legs.

“We have a big network that we work with,” she said. “We work with the SPCA and every law enforcement office and department in the area. Everybody calls us. Officers say, ‘Oh my, you guys answer! Can we call you again?’

“Linda and I have worked seven days a week for a long time. Now, we’re down to about five-and-a-half but we still work on our days off. We love our work and are passionate about it.”

The two women are professionally trained at administering antibiotics, wound care products like bird-specific ointments that don’t ruin their feathers, pain medicine, specialty food and liquids to treat the injured animals along with monitoring the them during their recovery and healing process. When possible, birds are released back into the wild or they are placed in vetted facilities located as far away as the east coast of Florida, said Vickery.

Charles Thompson of Gulfport was filleting his mullet catch near the municipal marina when he noticed an injured pelican among the group of birds gathered for handouts. A local photographer, who was taking images nearby, posted a plea for help for the injured animal on Facebook. Photo by Eagle Finegan.

Tips for Bird Rescues

The most common calls are for pelicans with line on them, said Vickery.

The group currently has about 20 trained rescue volunteers and some are skilled with cast netting to capture birds in need.

“Sometimes, we recruit people who call in for a rescue,” said Vickery. “Grab them by the beak while keeping it open somewhat so they can breathe then hold their wings and body like a football. Pelicans breathe through holes inside their mouth so if their mouths are held completely shut, they’ll suffocate. Next, get them into a box or dog crate and call us.”

Cormorants are dangerous because of the hook at the tip of their beak, she said. “That will take a big chunk out of your lip, your nose or your finger.”

The most important thing for people to do when they call for a rescue is “to stay with the bird, block it from going into the water and keep people away from it because crowds stress them out,” said Vickery. That way, when rescuers arrive, they don’t have to search at a general corner or intersection location for the injured animal. “Sometimes, we can’t find the bird and we waste an hour of our precious time.”

Another important thing regarding bird rescues is, “don’t try to take the hook out yourself,” she said. People “want to be heroes and they do it. But, almost 100 percent of the time, one to two weeks later we get the bird and it has an infected leg that requires weeks of treatment with antibiotics.

“While waiting for rescue volunteers to arrive, go ahead and remove fishing line from a bird especially if it’s wrapped tightly around a leg so it doesn’t cut off the circulation. Don’t release them.”

Future Needs, Donations

Vickery says they are looking to expand their physical facility to a one- to two-acre property with a house or building on it near Park Boulevard in Seminole, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg or Largo.

To find out more about the bird group or request a rescue, call Vickery at 727-365-4592.

To contribute, visit birdsinhelpinghands.org/donate. Though all methods of contributing are welcomed, those made online through the group’s website or sent to them directly through the U.S. Postal Service arrive much quicker than ones made through Facebook, said Vickery. 

 

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