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Rescued Pelican Released Into the Wild at McKinley Woods

Photo for: Rescued Pelican Released Into the Wild at McKinley Woods

Photo by Chad Merda

An American white pelican found underweight and riddled with lice in Cook County a few weeks ago has a new, temporary, home in a Will County forest preserve.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on October 18, a crew from the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County's Willowbrook Wildlife Center joined Forest Preserve District of Will County staff to release the now healthy bird into McKinley Woods – Kerry Sheridan Grove in Channahon. 

A large plastic crate was carried to the water’s edge. The door was opened and the pelican stepped gingerly onto the muddy ground. The bird walked slowly to the water and floated quietly for several minutes, shaking its wings as it became acclimated to the water.

About 15 minutes later, the big bird finally took flight circling around the area and above a group of pelicans that were sleeping in shallow water not far off shore. At that point, the rescue crew knew its mission was accomplished. The previously weak pelican was healthy, and it had a chance to fit in with a new flock.

“This is why we do what we do,” said Rose Augustine, a wildlife specialist at Willowbrook, which nursed the pelican back to good health. “Our hope is to always get animals treated and get them released back into the wild where they came from.”

A rescuer found the pelican on October 4 and brought it to Willowbrook, which helps thousands of injured creatures each year. 

"It was found on a beach in Evanston down and out and not moving away from people, and so that is usually an indication a wild animal should be picked up and intervention is necessary," Augustine said. 

In addition to being underweight, the bird also had a laceration on its wing that was surgically repaired.

“We fattened it up and gave it lots of food and ... some space for exercise,” Augustine said. “We monitored the wound that we did find and treated it with antibiotics to minimize any chances of infection. When the wound was healed, our vet removed his stitches and gave him a clean bill of health so he could be released.”

Pelican hangout

When it came time to release the massive bird, Willowbrook staff began looking for places where other American white pelicans were resting during their migration south to the Gulf of Mexico after having spent the summer in the Dakotas or Canada.

That’s when Augustine said she noticed that online birding sites were reporting a large flock of pelicans at Will County’s McKinley Woods. Pelicans are not native to this area, but they rest in Will County forest preserves as they migrate north in the spring and south in the fall. 

Because it is against the District's General Use Ordinance for wildlife to be released into the preserves, Augustine had to ask for permission for the release. Shortly after permission was granted, Willowbrook and Will County forest preserve employees headed down to the river with the pelican in tow.

Chris Gutmann, facility supervisor at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in McKinley Woods, said it was great to be able to help DuPage County with the pelican release. 

“This is a regular spot for them here,” he said of the pelicans. “A couple of weeks ago, we had over 200 of them here. So this is regular stop on their migration. They love this spot where the DuPage River merges with the Des Plaines River."

Social creatures

Augustine said the pelican was relatively young, hatching sometime earlier this year. 

“Because pelicans are very social birds, it’s really important for them to be released into a flock of other animals,” she said. “Based off of tracking information from the local birding community, I heard that there were regular sightings of pelicans in this area. That’s why we wanted to release the bird down here so it could be with others of the same species.”

And because the birds are so social, “chances are really good” that the released pelican would be welcomed into the group, she added.

Augustine said Willowbrook staff wanted to get the bird out into the wild as soon as possible for two reasons.

“In any rehabilitation setting, we always like to release the animals as soon as we are able to release them because we don’t want to keep them in a captive setting any longer than is absolutely necessary,” she said. 

Also, Willowbrook staff wanted the pelican to be released before all of the pelicans migrated from the area, otherwise staff would have had to travel farther south to release the bird. 

“This is prime migration time for the species,” she said.

Willowbrook handles 9,500 to 10,000 animal admissions a year. The most common creatures brought to the rehabilitation site are waterfowl, squirrels, opossums, robins and cottontail rabbits. 


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