Friday, January 28, 2022

Please Don’t Kill Pelicans with Kindness



Would it surprise you if you were told feeding pelicans the bones and heads of your catch-of-the-day is killing them with kindness? It was surprising to me years ago when I first became involved with rescuing local wildlife. Many pelicans, hundreds in fact, are sick and injured every year because of the cumulative effects of feeding on fish carcasses and scraps. 

Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) do not catch large fish like we would catch and keep to filet for our meals. The only one of seven species of pelicans to dive for their meal, Brown Pelicans feed on small fish such as menhaden, herring, mullet, and silversides. Using their superb eyesight, they dive from as high as 60 to 70 feet, spotting schools of these small fish or even a single fish. They submerge completely or only partly, and come up with a mouthful of fish in their throat pouch. Swallowing these fish whole, they are in no need of any help from us in getting a meal.

It is a traditional habit: come in from fishing, clean the fish on the dock, and throw the scraps to the gathering group of pelicans.  They gather in twos, threes and more, waiting for a handout. It is hard to resist throwing them something. The next time you are filleting that ‘keeper’ grouper, redfish or snook, please remember that the worst case scenario could be the bones and head of a filleted fish that include large bones, that can scratch, poke holes in the throat pouch, or even get stuck in the throat of a pelican. This causes the bird to get sick from infection, choke or even starve. If the pelican is successful in swallowing the large fish carcass, it can not digest the large bones and it will die a slow and agonizing death.

The terminal scenario of feeding pelicans is that they get habituated to the human handout, causing the birds not to hunt for themselves, becoming aggressive around the dock and in marinas.  Brown Pelicans take three years to acquire their adult plumage or to mature.  If young pelicans do not learn to hunt naturally during these developing years, they will not be successful in feeding themselves, let alone any young they produce. Also, once they become accustomed to the human handouts of fish scraps they will become a nuisance, staying in popular fishing areas around piers and marinas. Now, the lingerers are endangered by fishing hooks and monofilament line. Many fishermen will cut the line once an entangled pelican is caught.  Don’t cut the line!  Please follow the following steps that the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, University of Florida and Sea Grant recommends:

Quick Reference for Rescuing Injured Pelicans:

Capturing the Bird

  • If from pier, use a net to scoop the pelican
  • If from land, try to approach the bird from behind (if not possible, lure the bird to you with bait in one hand – grab bill with other hand)
  • Cover the bird’s head with a towel; this will calm the bird

Holding the Bird

  • Grasp the beak with one hand, but leave it partially open so the bird can still breath
  • Restrain the bird’s body with your free hand after the wings have been folded against its body (like holding a football under your arm)

Removing Hooks/Line

  • Locate the hook and push it through the skin until you can see the barb
  • Cut the barb off and back the rest of the hook out

CAUTION:  For humans and pelicans: never pull a hook out without first removing the barb!

Releasing the Bird

  • If the bird is not seriously wounded, release it
  • If the hook is swallowed, deeply imbedded, or injuries to wings or legs of the pelican, please call the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Wildlife Rehabilitative Center at (239) 262-2273.

Please don’t harm or kill pelicans with kindness.  Many marinas and piers have fish scrap repositories, or fish carcass disposal tubes, located conveniently near the cleaning tables.  If this not available, discard fish scraps in a garbage can. This will keep pelicans healthy and naturally part of the wildlife ecosystem. 

Nancy Richie is the Environmental Specialist for the City of Marco Island and may be reached at

Nancy and her husband Michael, have lived on Marco Island since 1992; they have two daughters, Madeleine and Camille. With a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology from Texas A&M University at Galveston, she was the microbiology analyst for an environmental laboratory, Enviropact, and then a hazardous waste inspector for the Collier County Pollution Control Department before becoming the City’s Environmental Specialist in May 1999. In 2005 she received the Guy Bradley Award from the Collier County Audubon Society for her stewardship of Marco Island’s environment.  A few of her duties at the City include: vegetation trimming permitting, beach vendor permitting, protected species monitoring, water quality monitoring, staff representative for the Beach Advisory Committee, and a liaison with federal, state, county and local environmental agencies and groups.

Nancy is a member of St. Marks Church, Friends of Tigertail Beach, the
Audubon Society, and Marco Island Historical Society. We are pleased to share her expertise with our readers.

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