The recent spate of hurricanes across the Caribbean and the United States hit hard on all fronts. Amidst such catastrophes it is always heart-warming to hear stories of bravery and kindness. One such story occurred a few years ago in Grand Cayman and involved a young pelican. In the aftermath of a tropical storm, angry waves continued to hit hard along our coastal regions, palm trees rocked frantically and the clouds rolled out an ominous black over the horizon. Nestled down under the cover of the mangroves, a local man out walking his dog, discovered a juvenile pelican. Weak and barely responsive, the bird gave little resistance when captured with a tatty beach-towel. He was bundled inside the dog's pet-carrier and dropped off at the local veterinary clinic.
"Pelly" as he was called, was given the once over and a diagnosis was made. He was utterly exhausted from no doubt battling against the storm. He was weak with hunger and appeared to have an injured wing. The vet contacted the local wildlife rescue group and plans were put in place for Pelly’s rehabilitation. Over the course of the next few weeks, we were part of a team of volunteers involved in caring for Pelly. Our job was to monitor his progress, give him his daily feeds and clean out his cage and paddling pool.
The first time we met Pelly, he was sitting on the side of his paddling pool looking a little bewildered. He was a bit scrawny and ill-groomed. However, upon dropping a number of defrosted fish into his "pond" he immediately perked up. We squirted water from a hose-pipe to make the fish "swim" and Pelly watched attentively before dipping in his beak at speed into the water to catch his fish. He then jubilantly displayed his meal for a moment in his beak before gulping it down. We would watch in awe as the entire body of the fish made its way visibly down the length of Pelly's expanding throat.
Every day that passed saw Pelly growing stronger and perkier. He gobbled up his meals and quickly gained weight. His feathers looked well-groomed and his general demeanour was that of a healthy bird. A few weeks passed and the team were in agreement that the youngster was strong enough to be released. His wing seemed okay and although none of us had seen him fly within the confines of his cage, he was often to be seen flapping his wings as though in readiness for flight.
One of the volunteers suggested that we release Pelly at a beach near her home. She'd noticed a few pelicans hanging around in the area and we all figured it was as good a place as any.
The day of the release came and quite a number of Pelly's "team" came by to watch. We'd all grown quite fond of our Pelly and we were all feeling a mixture of anticipation for his forthcoming freedom, alongside an element of anxiety for his ability to survive back in the wild.
At first Pelly ventured out of his cage and stood rather awkwardly. He flapped his wings and then nothing. He just stood in a kind of limbo between his cage and freedom for a good five minutes. I heard a few mutterings from the group. "He can't fly." "We can't leave him here." There was a feeling of disappointment and none of us were sure what to do for the best.
It was then that the magic began to happen... A shadow crossed the sky and looking upwards we were all amazed to see another, larger pelican soaring above us. He did a circuit and then landed in the ocean, close to the shoreline where Pelly was standing hesitantly. It was as though the larger pelican had come to greet the Pelly. In response, Pelly flapped his wings again and made a rather comical attempt at flight. Mustering some two feet off the ground, I wondered if his two weeks in captivity feasting on defrosted fish had made the Pelly overweight and too fat to fly!
My attention was drawn back by excited whisperings. Two more pelicans had flown in. Pelly's audience now consisted of the dozen volunteers and three wild pelicans, who seemed to be waiting patiently on the water for Pelly to join them.
"Come on Pelly!" We were all willing him to join his flock.
Pelly's audience must have given him the motivation that he needed. He once again flapped his wings vigorously and then this time he succeeded in lifting his body weight and he flew from the beach into the ocean within a few feet of the assembled wild pelicans. His landing was not particularly graceful, but he had flown. He was strong, he was healthy and now surrounded by other pelicans his chances of survival were surely improving.
We stood for a long time watching the group of pelicans. It seemed very evident that they had come to greet the Pelly and it seemed as though he had been welcomed warmly into their group. I liked to think they were asking him who he was and where he'd been? I wondered if they knew him previously or whether he was in fact a relative. On the surface there was little evidence of "communication", but at some point the four birds must have made their agreement, for in silent accord, all four of the birds stretched their bodies forward out of the water simultaneously and took flight. For a moment they glided above us as if bidding us farewell, before heading off along the shoreline to freedom.