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Pelicans blown north to Rhode Island will take private plane back to Florida

A pair of brown pelicans who were blown into Rhode Island by Hurricane Sandy’s blustery gusts will get a lift back to Florida in a private plane this weekend.

“This is not a hugely unusual occurrence when you have a storm of that magnitude,” said Kristin Fletcher, executive director of the nonprofit Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island. “They just get caught up in the winds. I can’t even begin to imagine what that trip must have been like.”

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The first bird landed in Fishermen’s Memorial State Park in Narragansett on Nov. 7, exhausted from a long journey, and was brought into the rehabilitation center to recover, Fletcher said.

The next day, a second brown pelican landed on a fishing vessel 120 miles south of Block Island, Fletcher said. The fishermen on the boat were fishing for Sea World Orlando and knew the bird was not a native Rhode Islander. Brown pelicans are only found as far north as the Carolinas, she said.

After being blown around for so long, the weak bird could barely flap its wings. The fishermen fed fish to the pelican and brought it to the rehabilitation center after they docked, Fletcher said.

“They are both exhausted, as you can imagine. Beat up and bruised,” she said. “One is missing some tail feathers.”

Each bird was glad to see that it was not the only brown pelican to be thrashed around by Sandy’s winds.

“They were exceptionally happy to see each other,” Fletcher said. “They actually had their necks wrapped around each other. That reduces the stress of captivity.”

One pelican had been previously banded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but federal officials told caretakers that the number corresponded to a pelican that was thought to be dead, Fletcher said.

The confusion may have stemmed from a mixup of the band numbers, she said.

The three-foot-tall juvenile birds were first placed in an outdoor cage because the weather was mild, but as temperatures dropped, rehabilitators worried. Brown pelicans typically live near the Gulf, along the southern Atlantic coast of Florida, Fletcher said.

“They’re not designed for those temperatures,” Fletcher said.

The birds couldn’t be left outside to brave New England weather and no indoor cage was big enough to house them, she said.

So Fletcher and her staff pitched a few ideas. Ultimately, they decided to pitch a tent.

“They need to be upright and able to extend their throats when they eat to swallow fish, so you need to have them in a good-sized enclosure,” she said.

The birds don’t seem to mind their five-person tent, as long as they get fish, Fletcher said.

When a caretaker enters the tent, the pelicans “just kind of stand there and check you out and hope you’ve got a fish for them,” she said. “They’re pretty laid-back birds.”

She said the staff had bonded with the birds.

“They’re wild birds so we try to minimize contact with them to reduce stress,” she said. “It’s hard not to like them because you don’t enter the tent and get immediately attacked.”

While the staff does try to avoid eye contact with the birds and any sudden movement, Fletcher said she believes the birds know that they are not in danger.

The original plan was to get the birds on a commercial flight to Florida, but the pelicans would need to be in a pressurized and heated part of the plane. Their cages also would be too large for the cargo space, Fletcher said.

“Nobody’s going to fly two pelicans in the cabin in a commercial airline,” she said.

But when locals heard about the birds in need, the rehabilitation center received an outpouring of support, Fletcher said.

The staff raised enough money to send the pelicans to the Sunshine State on a private plane, she said.

One Rhode Island man offered his plane for the trip, even though he’s currently in Florida. A friend of the owner will fly the aircraft from Rhode Island and the rehabilitation center will pay for the fuel and the pilot, she said.

The plane will leave from Quonset, about a 15-minute drive from the center, which is in Saunderstown, Fletcher said. After a six-to-seven-hour flight, the pelicans will land near Daytona Beach.

Rehabilitators from the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet will care for the pelicans until they can be released.

“They may not be as smart and experienced as the older birds,” she said. “We want to get them as far south as we can and get them in the hands of the people down there.”

The flight was scheduled for Friday, but has been tentatively changed to Saturday because of weather, Fletcher said.

And just when caretakers thought the saga was coming to a close, birders spotted a third brown pelican today on the rocks of Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay, she said.

The bird has not been caught yet but does have a reserved seat on the private plane, Fletcher said.

“If the bird is somewhat weakened, then he can be caught,” she said. “If he’s still able to fly and get away, then catching him will be hard.”

If the third pelican is brought into the rehabilitation center, the staff will have to evaluate his condition.

“We’ll be prepared, if he is physically able to travel,” she said.

Melissa Werthmann can be reached at melissa.werthmann@globe.com.
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