ST. PETERSBURG — The pelicans at the Pier don't know the difference between the Lens or a pyramid, inverted or otherwise.
They also don't know their days of swooping down for fish that humans eagerly toss into their beaks are nearing an end.
The pelicans will become the unintended victims of the Pier's May 31 closing. Many have forgotten how to fend for themselves. They no longer follow migratory patterns, with $5 buckets of fish sold at the Bait House in such ready supply.
Some pelicans will return to catching food on their own; others may die when the handouts stop.
"I think there are going to be more birds being found on the beach who are not able to take care of themselves," said Lee Fox, a longtime wildlife rehabilitator in Wimauma. "I don't know what to expect. I don't want to think the worst. I am a little on the fence between very bad and okay."
In the long run, Fox said the Pier's closing will be a kind of tough love for the pelicans, who will benefit from the end of human feeding. The timing of the closure also is good, she said.
A new crop of baby pelicans will hatch in August and rely on their parents to deliver food to their nests for several weeks. This means the adult birds will have June and July to brush up on their fishing skills and become more adept at feeding themselves before they have to start providing for a family.
"They have probably done interim feeding of themselves when they weren't getting enough from the Pier," she said.
She also hopes the local pelicans will develop better migration patterns. When waters get cooler in September, fish head south and St. Petersburg pelicans should follow them to warmer temperatures in the Keys or Tortugas. Some birds, however, stay behind because when the fish in the wild are scarce, they can still count on freebies at the Pier.
Barb Walker, a conservation advocate with the Clearwater Audubon Society, agrees the end of the feeding is good for local pelicans.
"I think it's best that we don't feed wildlife," she said. "If the Pier closing puts a stop to a negative pattern, in the long run it may be beneficial. We really need to leave natural things natural."
This was the guiding belief in 2008 when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a new rule that made the practice of feeding pelicans illegal across the state.
The law proved hard to enforce and didn't stop the Bait House at the Pier from promoting a beloved activity for locals and tourists alike.
"The law requires proof that the behavior of the pelicans is affected to the point that it's provable in court. We've had conversations with the bait shop owner and he is aware of the law," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Gary Morse. "Unfortunately, only after the damage has been done, and it's provable, can we take steps under this law to prohibit the feeding at that location."
A man working at the Bait House declined interview requests.
Morse reiterated the negatives of feeding pelicans.
"Absolutely no good comes of feeding wildlife," he said, "but as long as people don't see the result up close and personal they will likely continue to disregard the advice of the experts."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]