Disturbing find inside massive Australian pelican: 'They will ingest almost anything'

Some pelicans are "repeat offenders" and will come into care again and again after eating discarded rubbish.

A pelican standing in a room where it is in care.
This pelican was discovered with a large fishing lure piercing its wing. Source: WA Wildlife

WARNING - CONFRONTING IMAGES: Remember the limerick, “A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill will hold more than his belican”? Comedian Dixon Lanier Merritt’s clever rhyme highlighted the bird’s ability to store ample food in its beak “enough for a week”. But that was in 1910 before the proliferation of plastic.

More than a century on, Australia’s pelicans are routinely swallowing old wrappers, bottles and even nappies. Non-profit animal rehabilitation organisation WA Wildlife has shared shocking images with Yahoo News to highlight the devastation littering can have on these majestic waterbirds.

One shows plastic bags and wrappers regurgitated by pelicans. Another highlights a separate case in which huge tears were inflicted on the soft lower pouch after a fish hook was swallowed. Even more depressing is the shot of a juvenile whose leg was slowly amputated by a piece of plastic twine. Sadly because pelicans require two legs to survive it was humanely euthanised.

"We X-ray them and we've found bottles, we've found nappies, and we even found jewellery in one of them. They will ingest almost anything that they come across in the wild," WA Wildlife's Dean Huxley told Yahoo News.

Pieces of plastic that have been regurgitated by pelicans lined up on a towel.
These pieces of plastic were all regurgitated from pelicans. Source: WA Wildlife

Plastic can cause blockages inside pelicans and stop them from absorbing nutrients or even cause death. But there's an even more debilitating human impact waste problem that's impacting pelicans, according Huxley. And that's fish hooks.

Of all the pelicans that his vets and rehabbers see, around 50 per cent have hooks in their flesh or guts. And if there's one hook in the wing then there's often another in the stomach, or the leg. Because individual birds can become quickly humanised and scavenge around piers and boats the team often encounters "repeat offenders".

"We've had birds that we've released and two weeks later they've come back with more fishing hooks. There are some individuals who have come in five times," he told Yahoo News.

"These sort of hook and line entanglements can be pretty intensive. The birds generally get X-rays to determine if the hooks have penetrated any bone, or any sort of deep muscle."

Related: ANOTHER Aussie animal gets trapped in beer can

This juvenile pelican with a piece of twine wrapped around its broken leg.
This juvenile pelican had to be euthanised after its foot was cut off by twine. Source: WA Wildlife
A fishing hook piercing through a broken pelican pouch.
This pelican was discovered with extensive tearing to its pouch after it swallowed a fishing hook. Source: WA Wildlife

A bird admitted on April 29 with a lure entanglement in its wing required surgery due to significant tissue necrosis and a "nasty" abscess. It was captured by volunteers from Western Australian Seabird Rescue and then brought into care.

"It's been on antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, just some basic sort of wound care along with some saline flushes," he Huxley said.

"The next step for us is to move it out into pre-release, probably give it two or three weeks to really stretch its wings and exercise, get his fitness back and then we'll get a release it."

Close up of a fish hook inside a pelican wing. It's quite bloody.
This is the wing of the pelican you saw at the top of this page. Source: WA Wildlife

Fortunately, this problem is almost entirely preventable.

"We're trying to get the message out, particularly to recreational anglers not to cut their lines. They do this after they snag a rock, but then our water birds will see it sparkly and shiny, pick it up and ingest it," Huxley said.

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