86.8 F
Cruz Bay
Saturday, December 9, 2023


This valentine bears no hearts or flowers, no chocolates. In fact, he bears lots of light brown feathers, a couple of webbed feet and a very long beak.
"Valentine," after all, is a brown pelican. Barely three months old, he is a remarkably peripatetic youngster, very well-traveled — on ferry boats.
This isn't how things are supposed to be, but Valentine isn't your normal pelican. The name, for one thing, and the fact that he doesn't seem to know he is a bird, for another. Plus, brown pelicans are an endangered species.
Apparently abandoned by his family, he was discovered waddling down the street in front of the Coconut Coast Art Gallery on St. John by gallery manager Joan Cook.
"He was all alone and some peacocks and a little dog were harassing him," Cook said. She immediately called her husband Bob, charter boat captain and avid animal lover, to the rescue.
That was on Feb. 14.
Bob Cook knows something about wildlife. He was a docent in the Houston Zoo for four years, where he volunteered teaching children about animals, and he has worked as a diver at SeaWorld in Florida.
"I took him home and fed him canned sardines in water," Bob Cook said, "and then I called Park Ranger Laurel Brannick Traeger and we made arrangements to bring him over here to Judy. I brought him on the ferry in a cardboard box."
At the Fish and Wildlife Division, Judy Pierce is a Wildlife Biologist III, but that's an inadequate job title for everything she does.
"I kept him for about two weeks that time," Pierce said, "As a pelican, he's a very nice bird — he'd do a little dance for me when I went to feed him. I released him at Little Maho Bay, and I told Bob to keep an eye out for him because I didn't know how well he would get along by himself." Pierce had banded the bird for identification.
Her worries were valid. About three days later, Valentine was seen back in Cruz Bay seeking handouts from the local restaurants. Somebody called Brannick, who went to the rescue this time, and then called Bob Cook: "Guess what?"
Cook said he wasn't really surprised, since he had been forewarned.
So, back to St. Thomas on the ferry in the cardboard box again. Now Valentine's home is once again a large cage in back of the Fish and Wildlife office in Red Hook, at least until Thursday. "I have to go to the states for training next week, so Bob is going to take him back to St. John," Pierce explained.
But Cook is going to do more than that. He has arranged for a special site for a cage for Valentine in a secluded area at Maho Bay Campground. Cook is building the cage.
Then begins the process of preparing Valentine for an ordinary pelican's life, without all the drama and ferry rides.
Cook said the problem now is that the bird has "imprinted on humans": Valentine sees humans as his source of food (and entertainment, of a sort). What Cook will do is deliver the pelican's food with a sheet thrown over him at first, then gradually move him to shallow water, where, still disguised, he will throw in a few sprat for the bird to catch.
Pierce said, "Bob has his work cut out for him." And it may not work.
Cook has consulted with wildlife authorities in Florida who have cautioned him about Valentine's chances of becoming able to hunt for himself. If he doesn't get the hang of it, Cook said that's OK, then he will become what is called a "teaching bird," a bird he will take to grammar schools, essentially doing what he did before at the Houston Zoo, teaching kids about animals and birds.
"Lots of kids down here have never seen a pelican up close," Cook said.
Cook has taken a year off from sailing to investigate other projects and teach CPR and first aid for the American Red Cross' St. Thomas-St. John chapter. He is also working with the Wildlife Rehabilitation International Council to become a certified wildlife rehabilitator. There are none in the Virgin Islands.
Pierce, for one, thinks that would be a wonderful idea. "People just assume we do this as part of our job, and that's not the case at all," she said. "We are on federal grants, and there is no grant for wildlife rescue."
However, Pierce said, "There is often nobody else to do it. You've got a critter out there that's suffering, you can't just say 'it's not my job.'" Pierce works for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, but her work is funded by federal grants.
Cook and Pierce agreed that there are lots of people who go beyond their jobs to help, including the National Park Service employees. Ranger Brannick Traege is president of St. John's small Audubon Society where on March 13, Cook is giving a talk on wildlife rescue. "Rescue, rehabilitate and release is what it's all about," Cook said.
Cook and Pierce went outside her office to pay a surprise visit on Valentine, in his spacious cage.
The pelican appeared acutely disappointed when they both arrived empty handed, reacting with what Pierce called "playful" nips.
Playful? That's a very serious-looking beak.

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