This place is for the birds.
There are birds all around us, enclosed in pens, flying above us, and waddling beside us as we wind along a sandy path no wider than a city sidewalk. Turn around, and there are egrets wading through a pond on their toothpick legs and red-tailed hawks balancing on a live oak and looking down at us. There are frumpy, seated brown pelicans and graceful wood storks. Songbirds serenade us while white pelicans perch on posts, posing with their bulky beaks jutting out like swords, acting no differently than their brethren pelicans out in nature.
The bird is the word at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a beachfront avian rehabilitation center in Indian Shores, Fla., tucked along the Gulf of Mexico in the St. Petersburg metro area. It is a labor of love for founder Ralph Heath, a man who, to paraphrase Will Rogers, never met a bird he didn't like. Make that never met an animal he didn't like. As a child, Heath watched his surgeon father take a break from humans to mend birds, frogs, snakes, and other injured animals.
Heath was working hard to be a professional beach bum, selling driftwood lamps in the early 1970s, when he stumbled on an injured cormorant he named Maynard. After a veterinarian friend performed surgery, Heath took Maynard home for rest and recuperation. Shortly afterward, a friend brought Heath an injured seagull. Not long after that, other friends brought him a wounded pelican. That was the beginning of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary.
Today, based on the 6,000 to 10,000 injured birds admitted annually, Heath and his staff refer to this bird hospital and assisted-living center as the largest such complex in the world. The ultimate goal is to release as many birds as possible into the wild, with hopes of placing each in its appropriate habitat. The birds that can't be released become permanent sanctuary residents.
Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary guided tours last about 45 minutes. Our guide, Ryan Graham, garbed in his work attire - shorts, sneakers, and a T-shirt reading "I'm for the birds" - explained that male pelicans have longer beaks than females, and that in the wild mothers feed their young by means of regurgitation. Ewww! He also told us that northern gannets, with wingspans of six feet, can reach speeds of 60 to 70 m.p.h. when diving for food. And Jeffrey, a resident crow, part of the mynah family, can utter "Let's go" and "It's a crow."
Graham led us past several of the sanctuary's 24 pens. Many are divided by breed - one for raptors, one for wading birds such as sandhill cranes and egrets, another for songbirds.
"We started off rescuing seabirds," Heath said, "and have expanded over the years to include many different species, including land birds, birds of prey, and songbirds."
Others are separated by stages of life. The outdoor recuperation area is an avian convalescent home, where birds on the road to recovery are given room to roam but can still be monitored. There is also a pen for breeding. Birds are supplied with nesting platforms and nesting materials, but none are set up on blind dates; they choose their own mates. As soon as the babies can eat on their own and have sufficiently developed flight muscles, they are released into the wild.
As you amble along on the tour, it won't be long before you meet a permanent resident named Peeps. He's a needle-billed, stilt-legged, Oreo cookie-hued American oystercatcher. He lives here permanently because he is imprinted. That means Peeps was raised by people as a pet and therefore thinks he is human. He would rather be with humans than with birds, and could not survive in the wild.
To those who disapprove of keeping wild birds in captivity, the sanctuary's Scott Patterson, an outside avian supervisor, has a succinct answer: "Think about how they got here."
A vast majority of the 25 to 30 sick and injured birds brought to the sanctuary every day are there because of human contact. A high number have fishing lines and fishhooks embedded in their bodies, some the result of well-meaning fishermen who feed them. As a result, the wild birds gradually lose their natural fear of humans and accidents happen.
The avian residents are given their share of fish at the 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. feeding times. To picture the scene, imagine a rugby team at a buffet table. My wife was nearly bopped on the head when a pelican flying above us opened its beak and dropped a fish, which plopped in the sand by her feet.
Such is the unexpected kind of memory one may take from this place. But Heath would not mind if visitors learn a bit, too: "We hope that when people leave our sanctuary, they have a renewed respect for birds and are more conscious of how humans directly or indirectly injure them, as we all share this planet."
Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary
18328 Gulf Boulevard, Indian Shores, Fla.
Hours: Open daily, 9 a.m. to sunset.
Guided tours: Sundays, Wednesdays at 2. p.m.
Contact: 727-391-6211; www.seabirdsanctuary.com.
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