Conservation Officers, Conservationists, Save Brown Pelican

Wednesday, Jan. 27, started as a typical day for Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Environmental Conservation Officer Eugene Diefenbach, but by noon it was anything but, when, following a tip from the Connecticut Audubon Society, he and Officer Mike Curran were dispatched to a marina in Essex to rescue a rare visitor to these parts: a brown pelican.

Rescuing distressed wildlife is a unique part of the job for a DEEP EnCon Officer, and a mix of training, consultation with DEEP Wildlife Biologists and other conservation agency partners, and even life experience help to prepare them to respond in such varied situations, be it safely transporting an injured eagle or helping to free a deer caught in a soccer goal’s netting.

Upon arrival at the marina, Officers Diefenbach and Curran found that there were already people in place using spotting scopes to monitor the pelican, which was floating in icy water close to a dock. As Diefenbach and Curran were retrieving catch poles from their truck, the pelican floated underneath the dock. Laying flat on his stomach, Diefenbach gently tried to angle his catch pole to secure the pelican, which was extremely docile, telling Diefenbach and Curran that something wasn’t right with the bird.

“That was the biggest thing we noticed, if a wild animal’s not afraid of humans, that’s definitely a sign that something’s not quite right,” Diefenbach said.

With the pelican safely secured, Curran hoisted the bird from the water, taking care to keep its wings and legs contained, and gently placed it in a bin. The officers, driving slowly, then transported the pelican to A Placed Called Hope, a bird rehabilitation and education center in Killingworth.

Christine Cummings, President and Founder of A Place Called Hope, said today that this is the first pelican she’s cared for. She said it is a sub-adult male, and it doesn’t have significant injuries, though its wings were badly bruised, and it was hypothermic when the officers brought it in, barely blinking and lethargic.

“He was definitely dying,” Cummings said. “If they had not done what they did, he would have died. They are true heroes.”

Thanks also to heroic work on the part of Cummings, the pelican’s condition is much improved since Wednesday, and is trending in a positive direction. After being slowly warmed up, and provided fluids and fish slurries, the pelican has perked up, and is starting to eat some live bait on its own. Cummings has lined up a wildlife rehabilitation center that specializes in pelican rehabilitation, the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter, Florida, to take the pelican, she just needs to line up a pilot willing to give the bird a lift.

It’s unclear how the pelican, which is more typically found along the southern coasts of the United States, ended up in Connecticut. One theory is that a storm may have carried the bird here. Another, which Cummings thinks is more likely, is that the bird followed a fishing boat that may have been feeding him, and perhaps he stowed away on the boat.

One thing that’s certain, however, is that rescues of this sort often take a community of conservation-minded people to pull off. In this particular instance, the Connecticut Audubon Society became aware of the distressed pelican, and contacted DEEP’s Wildlife Division, which in turn contacted DEEP EnCon officers who could get to the location quickly. Tri-State Bird Rescue, which has extensive experience caring for birds, particularly those injured by oil spills, provided helpful information about caring for pelicans.

DEEP Wildlife Division Director Jenny Dickson said that having a “community of conservationists,” forged through solid relationships built on communication, shared knowledge, and an understanding of the shared nature of their respective missions, is critical to the success of these types of efforts.

“It creates a great network when there’s an emergency situation and wildlife need to be assisted,” she said.

For EnCon Officers like Officers Diefenbach and Curran, being ready for any type of unique rescue situation the job might call for includes a mix of training, either in-house with DEEP Wildlife Biologists, or with external agency partners like A Place Called Hope. It also includes picking up the phone and asking a Wildlife Division staff member for their expertise as uncommon situations arise. And, for someone like Diefenbach, who grew up hunting and being around wildlife, drawing from that personal experience.

“I love this job,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

To view video of the pelican rescue, go here: