Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary; A safe place for a bird

The coastal highway running down the Gulf of Mexico from Clearwater snakes through communities where sky- tickling condominiums, low-slung resort motel complexes, and stucco-covered efficiency rentals compete for a place in the sun.

Just off the asphalt here, tucked between the "no vacancy" signs and palm fronds, is a cluster of cages and buildings called the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary Inc., a place where injured birds are cared for and prepared -- if possible -- for release back into the wild.

"We'll take care of everything from sparrows to eagles," says zoologist Ralph Heath Jr., pointing to a cage where a scruffy-looking immature eagle is hunched on a limb. Mr. Heath, founder and director of the nonprofit sanctuary, has been helping birds for nearly a decade.

It all began with a broken-winged cormorant, rescued by Mr. Heath from the side of the road in 1971. He named the bird Maynard, and after taking it to a veterinarian, he began looking after his new ward himself. Over the next few months, he became the guardian for several other injured birds and by May 1972 the sanctuary was officially christened.

Since then the sanctuary has taken care of more than 35,000 birds.

Situated on an odd-shaped 1 1/2-acre slice of beach-front real estate, the sanctuary has grown from a backyard project into a bird rehabilitation center with a national reputation. There are currently about 500 birds residing here, including more than 150 brown pelicans.

The sanctuary receives 15 to 20 injured birds on an average day. Most are brought in by the public, but various government agencies also call on its services. In addition to the birds brought in, the sanctuary usually runs its own patrol boat in the inland waterways between Clearwater and St. Petersburg -- spanning 25 miles -- looking for birds in distress.

"When we don't personally run the patrols, that doesn't mean the work doesn't get done," Mr. Heath says, explaining that when business in the sanctuary hits full tilt, there are always friends who take up slack by patrolling with their own boats.

Demand for the sanctuary's services has been building steadily in recent years. The staff has grown, too, and now includes seven paid workers (including Heath) and a varying number of volunteers -- usually about four.

Heath recalls a day last year when the sanctuary took in 93 birds. "That's a record for a day without an oil spill or a die-off," he says. For emergencies such as oil spills, the sanctuary keeps a battery of wash bins and detergents on hand to clean birds.

But talk of numbers brings a smile to his face as he leads the way up a flight of outdoor concrete stairs. From there one can look out on the flat roof of the sanctuary infirmary where healthy birds often congregate at mealtime. On winter days these freeloaders sometimes swell the avian population of the sanctuary to more than 800.

But the director says the sanctuary is open to anything in feathers, healthy or hurt, and he means it.

The public is admitted freely, as well. The gates of the sanctuary are open every day from 9 a.m. until dark, and visitors can stroll between pens where egrets share space with herons. Small, hand-painted signs tell the names of individual birds, while others warn that "Parents are responsible to keep children's fingers away from all cages."

Heath pauses thoughtfully when asked how far his services have reached. "We've had a bird flown in from as far away as Washington state," he recalls, adding that they have also taken care of a screech owl driven to the sanctuary from Texas and a wood duck brought from Minnesota.

The sanctuary has a mailing list of over 8,000 bird-loving friends and patrons, some from as far away as Australia and West Germany.

But the most important work remains local, where Mr. Heath feels many birds are becoming victims of the region's rapid development. In fact, he believes the birds themselves are beginning to catch on to what the sanctuary is all about. Just the day before, he says, a pelican -- its characteristic pouch badly torn by a fishing hook -- walked into the sanctuary unescorted.

"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.

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."

Hoisting the pelican into full view of the fascinated onlookers gathered outside the chain-link fence, Heath says, "I don't advise anyone else doing this sort of thing, because they could knock your eye out."

Looking to the future, Heath sees several possible directions for his facility.

"We're really becoming a clearinghouse for environmental information," the director says. "One man wrote to me and asked what I knew about the American crocodile." He was able to put the writer in touch with an authority on the subject.

"And this is happening more and more all the time," he says. "A lot of students write asking about careers in working with wildlife."

He also hopes his sanctuary will soon be able to do more to educate the public about wildlife. He envisions a new sanctuary rising somewhere farther away from the coast with more room for education and research facilities, as well as for birds.

"This facility would remain as a satellite," Heath says, "but I want them [ the birds] inland where they're safer and we have the room to do the job right." More room, in this case, would be about 30 acres well enough away from the coast to protect the birds from hurricanes and tropical storms.

Storms coming in off the Gulf of Mexico are an important concern for the sanctuary, as it is for the entire beachfront community. Although the sanctuary has never had hurricane trouble, there might not be time to move all of the birds to safety in the case of a major blow, Heath feels.

Though he would like to make the move as soon as possible, he realizes that it could take several years to build the new sanctuary according to his standards. And he still hasn't found the right piece of land yet.

He hopes to relocate near the center of Pinellas County, a place where the sanctuary could "better serve the whole Tampa Bay area." But wherever the sanctuary goes, keeping a well-trained staff and proper support facilities are his main concerns.

But while Heath has visions for the future, wildlife rehabilitation in many forms continue to grow around the country.

Cliff Kevill, a wildlife care supervisor at the Chattahoochee Nature Center near Atlanta, Ga., estimates there are probably about 200 animal rehabilitation facilities around the country. Most of them, he says, are concentrated in the Northeast and California.

"The thing about the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is that they keep some animals permanently," Mr. Kevill says. "We [do so] only if they serve some significant educational purpose."

Mr. Kevill, who plans to visit the seabird sanctuary soon, says it is this educational emphasis that distinguishes the Georgia facility from Heath's. The Chattahoochee center takes in injured and orphaned animals native to the Chattahoochee River basin, most of which are mammals.

Kevill and Heath both say its hard to gauge the proportions of such animal rehabilitation in the United States, because so much work is done by individuals in small backyard operations.

"There are so many small ones," says Heath, who recalls hearing of some that work without the necessary permits.

Turning toward a pen where several brown pelicans are busily building nests from clippings dumped in by a young volunteer, Heath says, "You're looking at an endangered species." The pelicans seem unperturbed by the crowd of onlookers as the birds build nests just inches away from the path. Some are even building nests pressed agains the fence on the forward side of the pen.

"Being part of saving an endangered species is a reward that very few people can experience," he says.

Suddenly, the air fills with the flurry of wings as a low- flying pelican, coming in for a landing at a shallow angle, touches down deftly on the edge of one of the open pens. Feeding time is approaching, and another freeloader has come in to see what's for lunch.

It's an afternoon at the sanctuary, like so many others. The camera-draped tourists mill along the paths between the cages, and Heath and his co-workers begin hauling out the fish.

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