MOORHEAD, Minn. — The mysterious stranger toddled into their yard last Monday, looking tall and pale and beady-eyed.
They didn’t know how long he planned to stay; he communicated only through occasional grunts and carried nothing but a gray pouch.
After some quick Googling, the Noreen and Lee Thomas family identified the stranger who had wandered onto their Moorhead farm on Labor Day. They found him not on the FBI’s most wanted list, but on the National Audubon Society’s website. The lanky fellow was a lone White American Pelican and — judging by his light-gray pouch-like bill — he was still a young dude.
Although they weren't sure of his gender, they decided to name him Kevin. Or, as Noreen explained: “We figured it had to be a male because he was lost and wouldn’t stop and ask directions."
The large bird — who was as big as a full-grown goose and had to weigh over 10 pounds — created quite a stir on the Thomas farm. The dogs barked at him, until Kevin snapped his impressive beak in their direction and taught them a few things about pecking order.
The chickens were terrified: When Kevin visited the hen house, it created a mass exodus of ruffled, angry hens, all fluttering and clucking like indignant church ladies who'd been flushed out of the church basement by a Sunday school prankster pulling the fire alarm.
Kevin's assertiveness left a lasting impression. Pre-Kevin, one of their dogs had a habit of chasing chickens and no amount of correction seemed to stop it. But the canine's interactions with Kevin seems to have scared the poultry persecutor straight; he hasn't chased a chicken since, Noreen says. Maybe he realized chickens aren't so fun to harass when they have the wingspan of pterodactyls and can swallow a pigeon.
Actually, Kevin didn't seem scared of anything. As part of his Labor Day R&R, Lee had been fishing on the Buffalo River that runs right through their farm. As Lee started cleaning one of his catch, the brazen bird grabbed the fish right out of his hands. From that point on, he followed the Thomases around like they were walleye vending machines. But by then, they had already consulted with a friend who was a retired wildlife specialist, so they knew if they fed him, he could grow dependent on them and unable to fish for himself.
Although not feeding their guest went against everything in Noreen's German-Russian upbringing, it turns out they did the right thing. Michael Worland, nongame specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says feeding Kevin could have encouraged the young bird to "imprint" on humans and be unable to survive in the wild.
"If wildlife appear ‘lost’ or if they appear orphaned ... the vast majority of the time this is a natural process and the animal is not in danger," Worland advises. "A well-meaning person can often do more harm than good in these situations. So a good rule of thumb is to leave the animal alone."
But as time passed and Kevin stayed put, the Thomases grew concerned about the lone bird. While he didn't have any visible injuries, what if something was wrong and he couldn't fly? A flightless pelican seemed to be, well, a sitting duck.
Kevin's tender age, along with the fact it was still early September, suggest that he probably hadn't started migration yet. "It had probably recently left the nesting colony, and had separated from its parents," Worland says. "Pelicans don't necessarily carefully care for their young through the season, so it's possible there wasn't anything wrong with it."
The Thomases' friend — the former wildlife expert who had advised them earlier — had told them if Kevin was still there in a couple of days, she would make a trip out to the farm to give him a closer look and assess if he needed to be taken to a licensed rehabilitation site.
In the meantime, Kevin made himself right at home. He especially liked the Thomases’ daughter-in-law, Melany, and followed her everywhere, “almost like a dog,” Noreen says.
Noreen wasn't surprised that Kevin bonded with Melany, who has a knack with animals. The Thomases' daughter-in-law has rescued abandoned dogs, kittens trapped in trees and even once saved a horse from being put down by offering $25 to the horse’s owner.
Last Wednesday, Noreen left the farmstead for a day-long business trip. When she got home that evening, Kevin was nowhere to be found, She hoped Kevin looked overhead and saw some pelicans overhead and remembered that he could fly.
Noreen was hopeful he had found his tribe, but had to admit she kind of misses the guy. He was sort of charming, what with his clumsy waddle on land and his interest in restoring order among the farm animals.
“We think he hung around for three days to rest and then was off to see his grandparents in Pelican Rapids,” she jokes.
She and Melany prefer to think that Kevin enjoyed his stay at their riverside retreat enough so that he'll tell his bird friends. Maybe there's an avian equivalent to Yelp out there, called "Chirp" or "Squawk."
In that case, Melany says, "I hope Kevin leaves us good reviews."
And that he didn’t skip out on his bill.
Note: If you find a wild animal that's obviously injured or orphaned, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitation specialist. The Minnesota DNR web page is a good resource on finding one: Sick, Injured, or Orphaned Wildlife | Minnesota DNR (state.mn.us).