pelican rescue
A peaceful scene in early evening, but all was not well. Pelicans are rarely if ever seen on this campus, and its lack of activity signaled that this one was in distress. All the usual helpful agencies were closed for the day, but this bird was lucky: UCB Extension student Mara Guccione, a trained wildlife responder, happened by, and before long the feathered visitor was in rehab at a rescue clinic, medically assessed and eating heartily. (Campus photos: Dick Cortén. International Bird Rescue photo: Mara Guccione.)

Airport Berkeley

An unexpected visitor used the grass outside of Sproul Hall as a landing field one day in early April.  Safely on the ground, the flyer, a full-grown pelican of indeterminate age, ignored the humans streaming by, who were heading off to home and dinner. The main rush was over, and most didn’t notice the grey ball of feathers, hunkered down and unmoving, as they hurried along.

A few people did spot it, and kept watch. This was a sizable bird, and — despite the much larger statue of its ilk a mere hundred yards or so away, in front of Anthony Hall — a living, breathing pelican is virtually never seen on campus. (Seagulls commonly swoop around the Sproul Plaza when blustery weather tempts them inland to relatively calm oases with fresh garbage-snacks. Turkeys occasionally venture down from the oak and chaparral of the hills. But pelicans generally stay quite close to large bodies of water.)

This one moved rarely, except to steady itself against gusts of wind, and, once or twice, to stretch its wings. It seemed to be nodding off. So the watchers, who soon included a few campus police officers, began speculating about its health, and wondering what they might do to help. (One of the officers mumbled, “This was definitely not covered at the academy!”)

Smartphones and Google made the hunt for organizational alternatives somewhat easier, but it was after five, and most of those were closed, offered only polite recordings, or had no quick solution. The longer the bird stayed put, the more vulnerable it seemed and the bleaker its chances.

To the rescue!

Then good fortune arrived on foot in the person of a young woman named Mara Guccione — in transit to her evening UC Extension class in Barrows Hall when she saw the pelican and its befuddled human attendants. Guccione, it turns out,  is totally versed in What To Do in such situations. She’s a trained wildlife responder for International Bird Rescue — whose local center the police had just reached on the phone. Presto, their representative was already on the scene.

Guccione called her husband, Odin Zackman, who drove their truck through rush-hour traffic from their home in southwest Berkeley, bringing a dog crate and a patterned sheet.

Equipped, responder-Mara walked up behind the pelican, draped the cloth over it, and gathered it into her arms. The bird remained calm and did not protest, despite the compelling traditions of the local geography.

Minutes later, the pelican and its rescuers literally drove off into the sunset.

Wayfarers’ hotel

At some point, they made a turn to the northeast, conveying the bird 30-some miles away to an avian halfway house in Cordelia (not far from Fairfield, if you’re familiar with the road to UC Davis and Sacramento).

The International Bird Rescue clinic offers medical care and safety for as long as it takes for each bird to get well and  able to survive on his or her own. The pelican from Berkeley turns out to be a she (based in part on her size and bill length).

The experts have little more clue why she turned up on campus than the rest of us. Badly needed a rest stop, is the prevalent theory. One wag in UC’s Public Affairs office (where most are wags) suggested her GPS was on the fritz and couldn’t quite get her to her bronze likeness up the block.

For now, she’s in the best of hands. Her recovery pace will determine how long she stays at the clinic.  She arrived thin and weak, but with no other apparent medical problems. According to Guccione, she made a great start: “She gained 700 grams overnight, which is a great sign.” It should be; 700 grams is about a pound and a half, a sizable chunk for an animal whose normal fighting weight would normally at most be about the same as a small dog (a pug, say, or a Lhasa Apso).

As you might expect, International Bird Rescue is a nonprofit. It dates back about 40 years. Guiccione, who has a master’s in education from Harvard, has been volunteering with them since 2007, when the container ship Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge, releasing 54,ooo gallons of heavy fuel oil into the bay and coating thousands of aquatic birds and other creatures. Working with birds has changed Guccione’s life — she’s decided to become a veterinarian. “That’s precisely why I was on campus. I’m taking prerequisite classes four nights a week so I can I can apply for veterinary school this fall.”

Don’t try this at home

Guccione made the rescue look easy, but so, she says, did the bird. “She was so weak she didn’t put up much of a struggle. Pelicans can be quite feisty, so you need to know what you’re doing when capturing or handling them. That’s why a trained rescuer is really the only person who should ever do it.” That said, Guccione was also “really thrilled at how well the police and public reacted to a bird in need.”

After rehab will come release. With luck, she’ll do better than certain celebrities (Charlie S. and Lindsay L. come to mind.)

As a species, the brown pelican has bounced back from impending oblivion. First decimated so its feathers could decorate hats, it was nearly done in by the cumulative food-chain buildup of the insecticide DDT, which was banned in the United States in 1972. The brown pelican was listed as endangered in 1970, three years before Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.  Almost four decades later, in late 2009, after the DDT ban and vigorous conservation efforts and environmental protection, the species was officially delisted.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the time, “Today we can say the brown pelican is back,” with an estimated global population of about 650,000.

— Dick Cortén  


Update:  On Friday, April 20, International Bird Rescue held an event at the Brower Center in Berkeley,  to celebrate its four decades of emergency response work at over 299 oil spills worldwide and its year-round activity in California.  Mara Guccione, who rescued the pelican, attended that event after helping at the IBR clinic, where the bird was recuperating.  At that point, a little over two weeks after the bird touched down on campus, she was eating well, and from “too weak to resist” she had become feisty indeed.  One ankle was hurt, but getting better.  She had gained a kilo, which brought her up to around 4200 grams, or a much healthier nine pounds, four-plus ounces. — DC