Wildlife Rescue Takes in Birds Affected by Red Tide

Shelley Vickery holds just one of the many birds that she has saved recently through her organization Birds in Helping Hands, which rehabs injured birds and wildlife. The group has seen a large increase in birds that are sick due to ingesting red tide toxins.

Birds in Helping Hands is filled with injured shore birds, baby squirrels and recovering pelicans. It also happens to be Linda Mercado’s home. 

With red tide still affecting Pinellas County, Mercado’s Seminole home is open to a new type of wildlife: small shore birds who lay resting in crates, paralyzed and terrified. 

Licensed Wildlife Rehabber Mercado and Birds in Helping Hands Director Shelley Vickery are the founders of the organization and have dedicated their lives to rescuing injured birds and wildlife.

The 35 volunteers that work for the duo pick up the animals from areas as far out as Fort DeSoto Park, Palm Harbor and New Port Richey. 

In the last year, a new, closer community has been added to the list. 

According to Vickery, Gulfport Police Department has called the wildlife rehab facility when injured birds have popped up in the neighborhood. 

Brad Daniels, a Gulfport resident, has stepped up and started volunteering with the organization. Mourning Doves, a crow, a blue jay, a molted duck and countless squirrels have all been recovered from the Gulfport area in this past year. 

“We don’t want to give up on our birds,” said Mercado. “We give them every chance we can.” 

Since 2015, the organization has taken in hundreds of birds, some with bullet- and arrow-punctured wings, others with illnesses. Birds that cannot be released due to their non-native status or badly broken wings are found new aviaries to live out their days. 

Currently, the focus is on animals afflicted with red tide neurotoxins.  

The toxins that manifest in the fish are transferred to the birds upon consumption, and this renders the animals incapacitated and unable to survive in the wild, according to Vickery. 

“People don’t really think about how it affects the birds,” said Vickery. “That’s why we’ve gotten so many of them.”  

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is reporting low to high concentrations of red tide along the beaches of Pinellas County. 

However, the effects linger long after the algae bloom has passed.

In the month of September, about 40 birds have come in suffering the effects of red tide, and most of them have died. 

“It’s red tide on steroids,” said Vickery of the current bloom that has been plaguing Florida’s Gulf waters all summer. 

Vickery’s cell phone is constantly ringing with concerned beachgoers at a loss with the protocol for sick birds on the other line. 

“A lot of times, well they just can’t fly,” said Vickery. “We always hydrate our birds, less fluids and more food.” 

Three Red Knots lay paralyzed after ingesting fish that had been infected with red tide toxins. 

Three years ago, the two were working at Seaside Seabird Sanctuary. Vickery was the supervisor in the animal hospital, and Mercado was a volunteer. 

“She had a natural way with the birds,” Vickery said, gesturing to Mercado who held a crate with a crow under one arm. 

Both women were becoming frustrated with the fact that the sanctuary was only open for a limited time in the day. With the intention of helping more animals around the clock, they decided to create their own organization in 2015. 

“I applied for a permit, and we started building,” said Mercado. “Neither of us had ever built anything in our lives, and never in my wildest dreams did I think we would grow so big so fast.” 

With a higher number of animals comes huge expenses. The red tide certainly doesn’t help. 

“We’ve outgrown Linda’s house,” said Vickery. 

Birds in Helping Hands is currently looking for a larger space, and donations help. 

“It’s the people that drive an hour to give us a dove, and hand us $100,” said Vickery. “Donations have really grown.” 

In 2017 the organization received about $9,000 in donations; their expenses, including food, medicine and shelter for the animals were $13,000. This year, the donations have risen past $10,000, but Vickery estimates the costs to keep the animals, particularly in a year with such a severe red tide outbreak, will be about $20,000. 

Those interested in donating or volunteering should contact Shelley Vickery at 727-365-4592 or visit their website at birdsinhelpinghands.org.


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