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The plight of the pelicans: Nowhere to go

By Lane DeGregory
Chris Walls, 44, of St. Petersburg feeds injured pelicans and other birds that will stay and weather the storm at the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary on Indian Shores. In anticipation of Hurricane Irma's arrival Walls added an extra 50 pounds of fish to the meal in case the sanctuary staff won't be able to get back on the barrier island to feed the birds during the storm.

INDIAN SHORES - In the front of the sanctuary, all the aviaries are empty.

Grace, the great-horned owl; a golden pheasant named Donald; Isis, the red-tailed hawk with one eye, all went home with volunteers who offered to shelter them from the storm.

A total of 50 birds, most of them injured, had to be evacuated from the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary this week as Hurricane Irma threatened to crash across Florida.

"We've got them all over the place," said Operations Manager Eddie Gayton.

The sanctuary, which sits right on the beach, opened in 1971 and is the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital in the country – attracting about 50,000 visitors a year. After legal and money troubles, new managers took over a year ago and changed the name. This is the first time they have had to evacuate the birds.

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"We released all the ones who were strong enough on Wednesday, a total of about 10 birds," said worker Chris Wells. Then they started sending away the ones who still can't fly, to whoever could take them.

The hawks got out first. Then the owls. A blue heron, who had been in the hospital, had to have a towel thrown over his head so the volunteer could strap him into a seat belt. By Friday, almost every bird was gone.

Except for the pelicans.

"We just couldn't find a place for them," Wells said as he carried buckets of fish to their pens. "They're too big. There are too many of them. Of course, I'm worried, but … "

The 66 pelicans live in the back of the sanctuary, closest to the Gulf. They fill four enclosures: one for Eastern Brown boy pelicans, another for the girls, a rehab area for really sick birds, and a long space for the biggest ones: American White Pelicans, which stand 5 feet tall.

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Chain link and wooden fencing surrounds the pens. Mesh netting – like at golf course driving ranges – drapes between live oaks overhead, creating ceilings about 20 feet high.

"C'mon guys, I know it's early. Come on over here," Wells called about 12:30 p.m. Normally, he feeds the birds at 2:30, but he had to go board up his home in St. Petersburg. "I usually give them 150 pounds of fish a day," he said. Whole pinfish, butterfish and sardines. "But I'm giving them an extra 50 pounds of food today in case I can't get back onto the beach this weekend."

As he dumped the fish into small pools, the birds gathered around him, squawking and flapping. "Hey, George, how you doing?" he asked a tall white pelican with a broken wing, who has been at the sanctuary for 20 years. He tossed a fish, and George caught it in his bill.

"If the water comes up, I'm hoping that mound will help," Wells said, pointing to a 10-foot berm on the beach side of the pen. "Volunteers have been building that up for 45 years."

"Even if we get waves in here, these birds will be fine," said volunteer Barry Taylor. "They can swim, of course, and they sleep floating."

By 1 p.m., Wells had fed all the pelicans and filled their pools with water. The sea breeze was picking up, clouds starting to darken the sky. As Taylor locked the gate, two big, black vultures circled overhead, cawing. Then they landed on an empty cage.

Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LaneDeGregory