UPDATE: UI releases pelican where it has 'some friends to hang out with'

UPDATE: UI releases pelican where it has 'some friends to hang out with'

URBANA — In the wild, a pelican’s large, curved beak is quite useful for killing fish and scooping them up.

In our world, it’s more of a hindrance. That was the case when the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic released a pelican that had been under its care for the last two weeks.

“No big deal,” said Katie Dowell, a team leader at the clinic, “but it’s embarrassing.”

After struggling to get out of his cage, the pelican finally emerged and waddled around, eventually identifying a flock of seven of its fellows across the lake. It spread its massive wings as if to fly over to them, but muscle deterioration made that too difficult and it eventually walked. It approached the birds, then backed away.

“He’s just letting them know he’s new to the area and putting his feelers out for who he can approach and be friends with,” Dowell said.

The clinic decided to release the pelican a few miles west of Farmer City in the Clinton Lake vicinity because pelicans were seen there — a new flock to join.

The one brought to the clinic was the sole survivor of six pelicans that were shot April 3 at the Newton Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area and found by Illinois Department of Natural Resources employees. Conservation police brought it in.

While Illinois is in the migratory path for these pelicans, this has been the first one treated at the UI clinic since 2012, according to the UI College of Veterinary Medicine.

Veterinarian Sarah Reich, who oversees the clinic, said the injured pelican ate nearly 40 pounds of fish during its three-week stay after a bullet passed through his system.

“Despite his injuries and weeks of care, he remained as sassy as we could hope for in this species,” she said.

That sassiness, which came in the form of flapping wings and a snapping beak, was a bit harrowing, said the three students who drove the pelican to Clinton Lake in the back of a Jeep. But the group of 12 students who tended to it built a connection with the bird over the three weeks.

Jasper County authorities filed charges against two Newton teenagers April 14 in connection with the shooting of the federally protected birds after conservation police asked the public for tips to help identify the offenders.

Newton Lake has been a stopover point for the pelicans on the spring migration route for the past five years, according to the IDNR.

At Clinton Lake, the UI clinic’s recent guest will be able to complete the process started when it was brought in.

“To get him out here where he can pretty much finish his own rehabilitation is optimal,” said Megan Stuart, who holds the same position as Dowell. “He’s probably going to stay here for awhile, swim, eat a lot more food. He’s also in prime mating season, so he needs to bulk up a little bit more for the ladies. They’re social creatures, so he’s got some friends to hang out with.”