Mr pelican, your love gives me wings

Damien Enright recalls a strange affair between volunteer and pelican.

FROM childhood, I’ve always known pelicans were weird, my father having told me, early on, about their capacious throat-sacs. “A remarkable bird is the pelican,” he said, “Its beak can hold more than it’s belly can…” And while I believed him, I determined to one day see them to establish if this was true.

In America, I watched brown pelicans skimming the waves at Muir Beach in California. In Mexico, I watched white pelicans flying in V-formations over the Sea of Cortez. At Bharatpur in India, I saw Dalmatian pelicans, which I could have seen much nearer home, in Croatia. Why they went all the way to India, I’m not sure, except perhaps they liked to travel, like I did.

In the course of these observations, I have seen pelicans with throat sacs as capacious as saddlebags and, indeed, in the case of the brown pelican, not unlike saddlebags, seen close up. But neither I, nor my female companion, was ever wooed by an amorous pelican which is what happened to an innocent Scottish female who took a sick male pink-backed pelican, one might say, under her wing.

The bird, a native of sub-Saharan Africa, had absconded from a wildlife park in the Isle of Man and found its way to Northumberland where it appeared on a lake. It was found to be suffering from septicaemia, having been attacked by other birds. It was kept in a caravan for warmth until a representative of The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and took it to a rehabilitation centre in Fife. The volunteer on duty was a Ms Bailey, who took the bird in and gave it antibiotics. It was love at first sight, at least for the bird.

Subsequently, whenever Ms Bailey entered its cage, it displayed mating rituals. It would not tolerate anybody else when she was there, but snapped at other volunteers and even bit them. It liked nothing more than to snuggle up to Ms Bailey’s legs and every time it got the chance would take her hand in its large pink beak and preen her hair.

Ms Bailey, 47, who had been an SSPCA volunteer for eight years, said that she had never seen anything like it. In an interview with the London Times she said: “He looks right into my eyes and puts on what I can only describe as a mating display, with his wings up and his head bowed. He’ll walk over to me, snuggle in and preen me. He loves to take my hair or my hand in his mouth.”

The bird was nicknamed Romeo by Ms Bailey’s colleagues. “It’s only me, for some reason,” she added. “If I’m not around, he’ll tolerate someone else feeding him his fish but as soon as I appear he goes for them. He gets in between us and his wings go up, his mouth opens wide and he lunges at them. He’ll bite if they’re not quick enough to get out of the way. I feel terrible because I know it can be painful. He has bitten staff, volunteer helpers and the vet…” The manager of the Manx wildlife park from which the passionate pelican escaped said he could not comment on the bird’s behaviour. He thought it may have been overwhelmed by the novelty of human contact as it normally lived in a one-acre paddock with a lake and only ever came near the edge, and humans, to be fed. However, Ms Bailey insisted: “I haven’t encouraged this bird. Other staff members have spent more time in its company than me. Everyone tries to be nice to him but he has become attached to me. My colleagues laugh and make jokes, saying he thinks I’m his mate, or that I must have been a pelican in a past life. But I feel quite guilty.”

As she prepared the bird for its return to Curraghs Wildlife Park on the Isle of Man, she voiced concern about his future without her. “I’m hoping he’ll get over me when he sees other pelicans again,” she said.

A Happy Christmas to my readers and may your joys be lit with a long-life bulb.

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