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Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary; A safe place for a bird

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"I'm a strong believer that birds like pelicans have their own communication, " he says. The pelican "knew other birds were being taken care of here." The sanctuary has perfected a technique for repairing torn pouches, a common problem wherever pelicans hang out with fisherman.

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But Heath says one of the sanctuary's greatest accomplishments came in 1975, when the facility became the first place in the country to have a pelican hatch and fledge from crippled parents.

"The scientific community didn't think there would be any value in keeping crippled pelicans," he says. He recalls being told that the birds would just consume valuable time, space, and fish.

Heath figures that 110 baby pelicans have fledged from the permanent residents of the sanctuary. Between 15 and 20 will hatch this winter alone.

"We didn't know they were going to breed," he says, pausing beside one of the pens. Inside, a crowd of brown pelicans are jockeying for a position near the blue plastic wading pool that serves as their water supply.

Heath smiles like a proud grandfather as he tells about Salty and Alexis, a prolific pair of pelicans that have hatched and fledged 18 babies in the last five years.

In recent years, some of the home-grown pelicans have come back to the sanctuary to build their own nests, and one -- named Tuna Fish -- has never left.Heath maintains that the birds come back because they know it's safe. Pointing around to the surrounding pens, he adds, "and they're very colonial."

The pelican pens are mostly open at the top, to allow for this flow of traffic from the outside world. But the aviaries for land birds and birds of prey are kept enclosed to ensure that these birds are only released into their proper environments.

"Years ago we were looked down on for saving birds," Heath says, a somber tone entering his voice. "But now they realize you can successfully rehabilitate birds and have them breed. What they couldn't prove by theses and papers, we proved by doing."

Besides the breeding success at the sanctuary. Heath has also helped to establish colonies of pelicans at various qualified zoological parks such as Walt Disney World, Weeki Wachee Springs, and Homosassa Springs, all in Florida.

In another recent project, the sanctuary sent 36 pelicans to Galveston, Texas , where they're settling in and doing very well. The only pelicans sent to parks are those that -- because of problems like damaged wings -- cannot fend for themselves in the wild.

But there is a price to pay for success -- starting with about $15,000 a year for fish alone. Last year's budget ran close to $60,000, a figure that is likely to continue growing.

The sanctuary keeps its financial nest feathered primarily with donations from individuals. Help also comes from various organizations and institutions.

But while the sanctuary garners praise and donations from the public at large , there has been some opposition, mainly from "a few people in the community." Some local residents felt the sanctuary was a noisy nuisance.

In 1974 the town of Redington Shores gave the sanctuary 30 days to move out. But the town's action only provoked a local media blitz which Heath says, "gave us the greatest boost we ever had."

Meanwhile, he has taken care to avoid trouble with officialdom by making certain that he has all the permits necessary to handle various types of wild birds.

"You can't please everybody," he says, reaching to open the gate of the pen shared by several rare white pelicans (native to the Canadian border and fresh water) and a host of their brown cousins.

"To me, everything has a right to live," Heath says as he picks up one of the brown pelicans that he knows by name, "whether it's an endangered species or just an old pigeon."