Wildlife Rehabilitation Works: Pelican Spotted Nearly 14 Years Post-Release!

Brown Pelican C57 spotted August 29, 2023 in San Mateo County. Photos: Bart Selby

Big round numbers often catch our attention – especially when it comes to California Brown Pelicans.

The number 5,000 caught my attention recently when former patient Brown Pelican banded C57 was re-sighted on August 29, 2023 in San Mateo County by prolific pelican spotter Bart Selby. He photographed C57 busily living her pelican life resting and socializing on the coast.

She was released on December 16, 2009 after being unable to fly due to a wing injury, and is the first of our blue-banded pelicans to cross that big round number of 5,000 days back in the wild after leaving our care.

The Blue-banded Pelican Program started in the fall of 2009, coincidentally, right before California Brown Pelicans were removed from the Endangered Species list. Only a small number of birds received these special blue leg bands in the first year. Since then, more than 1,750 of our former pelican patients have been released with these bands that have allowed the birds to be easily spotted while going about their business.

Our web portal has enabled bird observers to report sightings for us to learn what they’ve been up to since release. Some pelicans have been spotted only once while others are seen more than a hundred times. Some go many years before or between re-sightings. Others are spotted every year at certain locations when they stop in while on their annual migration. Some are only spotted in remote locations away from people. A lucky few who spent time in our aviary together have been seen traveling in the same flock years later. Occasionally we’ll receive reports of sad stories of injuries or deaths, but the vast majority have been reports of birds alive and well long after release. We treasure every report.

Brown Pelican C57 scratches her head with her back in San Mateo County.

5,000 days is a long time to survive in the wild, 13.7 years. C57 was an adult bird at least three years old when in care in 2009, thus must be nearing 17 years old at a minimum. Brown Pelicans are long-lived birds that aren’t officially adults until they are more than three years old. Although they can potentially live into their forties, there are so many threats to their health and survival that only a small fraction are thought to make it more than 10 years. Many of these threats are caused by or exacerbated by humans.

Bird Rescue’s work caring for injured birds helps mitigate the human impact on wild birds. Every single one of our former patients that wears a blue leg band survived a life-threatening event to arrive into our care in the first place before making it through to be released. Each re-sighting demonstrates that the care we provided was effective at getting the birds over their problems and fit to survive after release.

Information about how rehabilitated wild animals do after release is quite sparse in the scientific literature; to expand knowledge on this subject, we recently published a scientific paper that explores not only our former patients’ post-release survival but correlates it to what their medical problems were while they were in care.

Two other former pelican patients that were released in November and December 2009 are likely to join C57 in crossing the 5,000 days mark soon. Back in 2009, C98 was treated for extreme anemia and had contaminated plumage causing him to starve near to death, while C34 had severe fishing gear injuries. Both birds were also at least three years old in 2009, and have already been re-sighted doing well in 2023. We await their next re-sightings which will likely send them over 5,000 days too.

We hope that our former patients will eventually become the oldest known California Brown Pelicans and we want to continue to get glimpses into their lives through reports from wildlife observers. We revel in the birds’ successes despite the challenges they face to survive a changing world. Ultimately, we want to see even bigger round numbers.