Pelican postmortem

The brown pelican on a kayak on Lows Lake.
Katherine Nussbaumer and the brown pelican on Lows Lake. Photo by Scott Nussbaumer.

The brown pelican that excited Adirondack birders for a few weeks has died of starvation, according to Amy Freiman, a wildlife rehabilitator in Newcomb.

The pelican was first spotted on Fourth Lake in the Fulton Chain and later on Lows Lake. Observers said it exhibited strange behavior, approaching people in boats and at campsites, apparently looking for food. The photo above is a case in point.

Freiman said the bird, though it may have appeared healthy, probably was famished the whole time. She speculates that it may not have been able to fish in our murky waters. Brown pelicans usually fish coastal waters. They reside along the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic as far north as Maryland. This pelican, a male, was banded in Maryland in 2001. It was the first of its kind seen in this neck of the woods.

“How it got here, that’s a big mystery,” Freiman said.

When Freiman received the bird last Wednesday, it was already weak and emaciated and vomiting bits of styrofoam and earthworms. The bird died overnight. She sent the carcass to Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Delaware for a necropsy.

“It had other issues, but the main cause of death was starvation,” Freiman said.

She thinks the bird might have been saved if authorities were alerted sooner. “The biggest mistake was that all the birdwatchers who were enjoying this bird didn’t call anybody,” she said.

By amazing coincidence, the bird was captured after begging for food at a Lows Lake campsite whose occupants included a woman who used to raise and rescue brown pelicans in Florida. Her son wrote in an e-mail posted on a birders’ e-mail group: “My mom caught the pelican and we kayaked down the Bog River to the Lower Lowe’s [sic] Dam. At the dam, my mom hitchhiked with the bird to the nearby Wild Center. However, they would not take the bird, or give it fish, so she took it to the High Peaks Animal Hospital [in Ray Brook].”

Steph Hample, a Wild Center naturalist, said the museum is not set up to take in wildlife. She also said that protocol calls for examining a distressed bird before feeding it. Hample was en route to the Wild Center to look at the bird when the woman decided to take it to the animal hospital instead. The hospital later turned the bird over to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Next time an unusual bird shows up, Freiman hopes people will contact DEC right away.  “Anytime you see a bird that is outside its natural habitat, there is something wrong,” she said.

“Everybody tried,” Freiman added, “but it was just too late.”

About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.

Reader Interactions


  1. ricardo says

    Wasn’t there quite a bit of publicity around this bird already? Does anyone with skills and authority need a special invitation to intervene? Seems like saying “well I just didn’t know about it” is a bit specious. Pointing fingers of blame (if there is any to be had) all around doesn’t wash here.

  2. Scott Nussbaumer says

    There was a lot of publicity about this bird, however, when we were up there the ranger had advised us that she was aware of the bird’s presence and had contacted DEC Wildlife Services, who she expected to show up on Monday. When we ran into this pelican, he was flying well and appeared to be in good health.

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