A cold snap is a comin’! Temperatures are scheduled to drop over the next few weeks, even to the teens, and bad things happen to wildlife when Eastern North Carolina gets that cold. Food will become scarce and frostbite can occur, mainly with our Brown Pelican population. We have seen pelican frostbite cases admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC over the years and sometimes in such great numbers that there’s hardly enough room to house them all! The Brown Pelican is a North American bird of the pelican family, Pelecanidae. It’s a very big seabird found on the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to the Amazon in South America. Most people who reside in North Carolina and tourists who visit are very familiar with pelicans. These large fisher-birds have habituated with humans, so we see them everywhere along our beach fronts, docks, fishing areas and find them ever present in our views at waterfront restaurants.The Brown Pelican is known for its oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Juvenile Brown Pelicans are in fact brown with a lighter beige underbelly, but a mature Brown Pelican’s coloring is vastly different. The adult will have a white neck and head with a yellow crest and its body is almost black with dark gray feathers. Flying units of pelicans, young and old, glide with seemingly little effort above the surf along coasts, rising and falling with the graceful movement of the waves. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up in their pouch. We bird watchers enjoy the purposeful antics of this comically elegant bird. With coldness looming, wildlife rehabilitators know that unfortunately, pelicans will do what they generally do in freezing temperatures and that is, nothing. They will stay out of the water and sit very still as they try to deal with the frigid and frosty weather nature has dealt them, which we know is not good to ward off the condition of frostbite. Frostbite is simply tissue damage caused by freezing, so keeping circulation going is one of the keys to prevention. The first body parts affected by decreased blood flow when exposed to extreme cold are those furthest away from your core, pelican or human. With pelicans, the cold will attack its toes and gular pouch first. Frostbite can happen very quickly in severely frigid weather; possibly within five minutes! Pelicans do not have the preventative luxury of layering its clothing or feathering for that matter, to protect the most vulnerable areas of their body from frostbite and no one is offering them a hot cup of tea or cocoa. Frostbite generally affects the top layers of the skin, but when it becomes more advanced, the damage will extend through the muscles and to the bones. When Pelicans are admitted to the shelter with frostbite, it’s because they are found disoriented, unable to walk due to pain in their feet, unable to fish and weak from starvation. Rehabilitating pelicans is a costly situation anytime but when frostbite is present they will require medications, surgical procedures to remove necrotic tissue or bone caused by frostbite and loads of fish for the starving and recovering birds whose rehabilitation stay at the shelter will correlate with the extensiveness of their frostbite. Pelicans can still be released and survive in the wild if their loss is only some webbing between toes or partial toe amputation, but loss of a foot, leg or pouch meets with a grim outcome. At the wildlife shelter we offer our frostbite patients treatment and care to include continuous, never ending clean up, plenty of food and medications they need and the necessary time to heal while we monitor their behaviors, returning skills and potential for a successful release. Most pelicans in our care are easy to get along with for they are friendly, social birds. They seem to be appreciative of the warm, safe haven we provide and the easy food. However, occasionally, we’ll get a pelican with a really bad attitude and a case of “snap-itis,” so we stay clear of that wild bill flailing in the air, because it can pinch pretty darn hard if it catches a human leg or arm, but those are few and far between. Pelicans aren’t the only wildlife who suffer from frostbite when a freeze hits our area. Virginia Opossums are also occasionally affected because they have bare feet and a bare tail. Frostbite is always bad no matter the victim, but most opossums seem to be resourceful enough to find a warmer place to hunker down and ride out the cold than our totally exposed Pelicans. Pelicans can live to be in their forties, which is quite the longevity for an animal in the wild, and we want to help those damaged by frostbite to recover and get back out there to live that potentially long life. So, if you see pelicans staying in one spot too long after an icy, cold snap, there could be some “Cold Toes” going on that require treatment. Our doors are wide open to receive them!!
Stay warm out there and best always,
author of “Save Them All“