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Pelicans are fishing for handouts

I have been frightened only once while visiting the Everglades. I'm not talking about the two times I thought I was lost or the countless occasions when I was sure mosquitoes were going to drain me of blood. My most terrifying moment in the national park happened 15 years ago, when I was cleaning fish at the marina and was attacked _ by pelicans.

Yes, pelicans. Those lovable clowns of the waterfront. Those clumsy brown birds that delight camera-bearing Floridians and tourists alike. But down at Flamingo, over at the fish-cleaning table, pelicans were trying to kill my friends and me.

They wanted the trout and snapper we were filleting and were willing to sacrifice us if we got in the way. They wanted our fish now. While a dozen pelicans floated in front of us in the water, mouths menacingly agape, about a dozen more edged in on foot.

Only inches away, they tried to reach up and steal fish from the table and our hands. When we turned to shoo them away, other feathered commandos slipped in from the opposite flank. One hopped on the table and escaped with a trout. A frustrated pelican nipped my friend, Karl, on the leg. Startled, Karl jumped in surprise and came close to piercing my ear with a very sharp knife.

Anyway, it was about as exciting an afternoon in the wilderness as you can get. After a while, we figured a way out of the nightmare: As two of us cleaned fish, the third man kept the frantic pelicans at bay. I have never had a fish dinner that was so hard-fought.

A chance for a quick meal

So what was wrong with these pelicans? Were they starving? Crippled? Mean?

There was nothing wrong with them. They had been spoiled by well-meaning people who had routinely fed them for years. These pelicans had learned to associate humans with food, and they had learned that a human at the fish-cleaning table meant a chance for a quick meal.

In a way, I guess it was funny. Even my friends and I laughed about it _ on the way home. The tourists who snapped pictures of the fish-cleaning table action seemed to enjoy it, too.

In another way, it was pathetic. Pelicans are

among the best fishers in the sea. Normally, they fly over the water, spot minnows and dive on them with their mouths open. Pelicans don't need our help. Yet here in a national park, of all places, they were reduced to beggars.

Even worse, some pelicans were paying with their lives. At the time my adventure took place, almost every pelican at the marina bore the scars of fish hooks or fish lines. The pelicans who got freebies at the marina, or stole from the fish-cleaning table, weren't very discriminating. So they dived on the baits tossed into the water by anglers and got snagged.

Park rangers caught many of those pelicans and removed the fishing hardware. But some pelicans evaded the rangers and flew to their mangrove roosts at sunset. You knew that those birds probably wouldn't be coming back. The line hanging from their bills or feet would eventually entangle them in the mangroves, dooming them to starvation.

Nature takes its course

Recently, I returned to the park for a visit and, out of curiousity, walked over to the marina. Pelicans were standing on pilings, as they always have been, but they weren't bugging anybody for food. And I saw no pelican that was damaged by fishing tackle.

The reason is that five years ago the park started enforcing an old law that prohibited the feeding of wildlife. You can't throw as much as a minnow to a pelican these days. The pelicans are doing fine. These birds have learned to fend for themselves, rain, shine or cold.

"It got a little ridiculous," said Steve Robinson, who has worked as a park naturalist for 10 years. "Among other things, we were losing three or four pelicans a week that would die after trying to swallow a big fish carcass or fish head that somebody threw it. Pelicans are used to eating small fish."

When Robinson gives lectures about park ecology, he usually explains the no-feeding policy. Most people understand, but some are disappointed they can't feed pelicans, alligators and other animals. They think they're showing kindness with handouts.

"People have a hard time being passive about wildlife," he said. "They want to get involved. Here at the park, we generally let nature take its course."

That's a problem for some folks. A few years ago, a woman asked Robinson to save an injured sea gull in the marina parking lot. Crows, which often kill and devour the weak, were attacking the gull. Another woman was trying to shield the gull from the crows.

When a pelican _ yes, a fish-eating pelican _ tried to eat the dying gull, a group of people threw stones at the pelican. At that point, a ranger stepped in to stop the stoning. Brown pelicans, at the time, were an endangered species. But the ranger did nothing to save the gull. Some tourists were enraged.

"Animals die in the wild all the time," Robinson told me. "Survival of the fittest is an excellent way of weeding out incompetence. The strong survive, and they pass that on in their genes."

Table is pelican-proof

Last December a rare hard-freeze descended on the Everglades. I asked Robinson if the park resorted to feeding sea gulls and pelicans. Minnows, I've been told, stay in deep water during the worst of winter. Pelicans can't get at them and go hungry.

"We haven't found that to be true in the park," Robinson said. "When it's very cold, minnows and other fish generally rise to the surface because that's where the sunlight is. Then they're easy prey for pelicans. And I'd have to ask this question: If pelicans starve when the weather is cold, how did they manage to survive this long without us?"

Before I left the marina, for old time's sake, I went looking for the fish-cleaning table where so many years ago I engaged pelicans in battle. I couldn't find it. Somebody had to show me. The table is inside a screened-in room. It's pelican-proof.

If park geniuses can persuade the mosquitoes to lay off the tourists, we'll really have a paradise.