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The UN Biodiversity Conference, held in December 2022, resulted in hundreds of countries agreeing to protect 30% of the planet and 30% of degraded ecosystems by 2030. As countries are working to develop a framework to achieve these goals, it is equally important that organizations, institutions and individuals do their part to support wildlife and ecosystem conservation efforts. The University of Ross School of Veterinary Medicine (Ross Vet), located on the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, is doing just that with its recent efforts to save 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, affectionately nicknamed “Peli Brown”, was emaciated and dehydrated. Several abnormalities were evident from blood tests.
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, BCVA Diplomat, Assistant Professor of anesthesiology. at Ross Vet, to lead a team of 50 volunteers to rehabilitate Peli Brown by teaching him the basic skills necessary for survival in the wild, flight training to build strength and endurance, and training to capture and consume live prey.
Ross Vet normally deals with 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. Staff hope the care provided to Peli Brown will be the start of new opportunities for Ross Vet.
Stewart and Escobar trained Ross Vet students in proper restraint techniques for a pelican, proper medical treatment and medication administration for a pelican’s anatomy, and assisted with the daily feeding of Peli Brown , flight training and such simple tasks as collecting salt water for his enclosure. . The bird gained 2.4 pounds, doubling its body weight, and it became adept at flying and catching live prey. Peli Brown was released in late November in the White House Bay area on the southeast peninsula of St. Kitts.
Watch for a young brown pelican with a blue stripe
Now, Ross Vet encourages birdwatchers and residents of coastal areas of St. Kitts and Nevis to watch Peli Brown. A juvenile bird with a brown neck and head and a greyish beak, Peli Brown can be identified by a blue band placed on its right leg with the registration number G19. The identifier will allow the team of volunteers to continue to follow their progress in nature to obtain valuable information on their movements. The group was offered by Scott Rush, PhD, MS, BS, associate professor at Mississippi State University Forest and Wildlife Research Center.
Peli Brown feeds on live tilapia from a local farm. Photo courtesy of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine
“When I first examined Peli Brown at the Ross Vet campus, he was weak, emaciated and dehydrated, and a number of abnormalities were evident in his bloodwork,” Stewart said. “His second chance at life was due to the awareness and quick action of Ross Vet students who noticed he couldn’t fly and rescued him from being chased and harassed by dogs, close to their off-campus residential complex.
“Field and rehab settings are one of my favorite settings for student interaction,” Stewart added. “Wildlife cases require a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to scale appropriately, as we are not in a controlled environment with predictable behaviors, timelines and outcomes. You can really see the creative and stamina side of the staff you work with. It requires a significant investment of time and strength – both physical and emotional – and requires a unique personality to endure and persevere.
More than 300 volunteer hours
The students who cared for Peli Brown had a wide variety of responsibilities. Stewart and Escobar trained the students in specific wildlife rehabilitation tactics to meet the needs of Peli Brown’s juveniles. As rehabilitation progressed throughout the semester, some students assisted with diagnoses and X-rays for Peli Brown with Gilda Rawlins-Vaughan, DVM, Diagnostic Imaging Instructor and Head of Imaging at the Infant Clinic animals from Ross Vet. More than 300 volunteer hours were given to Peli Brown throughout the three months of on-campus rehabilitation.
After being trained to capture live prey, Peli Brown fishes for food in the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine aviary on campus. Photo courtesy of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine
“The volunteers we had were amazing, and their level of commitment and dedication was inspiring,” said Stewart. “I have enjoyed our daily interactions and seeing them have new experiences while developing skills with a species that they are not typically exposed to in veterinary school. Collaboration is key to success with these species, and the willingness and effort of all parties has been truly rewarding. I hope that we can use the information obtained through this case to facilitate further research and treatment of this species.
Brown pelicans are gregarious birds that congregate in large flocks for most of the year, and Stewart said the release location was chosen with that and other factors in mind. She noted that while it could be found anywhere on the island, birdwatchers would most likely spot it on the Caribbean side of the island and should keep their distance.
“This species is a symbol of successful wildlife and ecosystem conservation. On behalf of Ross Vet, we are grateful to have played a small part in continuing this process through the rehabilitation of Peli Brown.
Stewart said oil spills, habitat loss, entanglement and reduced prey availability remain some of the threats facing the pelican.
“As with all wildlife, making sure we do our best to maintain a healthy environment is an important way to help these animals. The SKSTMN has monofilament recycling bins on the island which can be used to recycle monofilament lines to prevent wildlife entanglement and also provide a location for disposal of hooks.
Today, the brown pelican is the national bird of Saint Kitts and Nevis. The country is working to develop population monitoring systems for seabird and shorebird species. There is no official estimate of the local pelican population, but it could number in the hundreds. Partners in Flight estimates the world population at 370,000 birds. The species was declared endangered under the US 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 the SKSTMN Facebook page.
Thanks to Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine for providing this article.
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