Pelicans killed on South Texas highway prompt activist to the rescue

Last week's snowfall caught people and pelicans by surprise. The cold front brought winds strong enough to force the birds onto incoming traffic

Texans all across the state weren’t the only ones taken by surprise by last week’s snowfall. Hundreds of South Texas pelicans were also caught by surprise, and began falling from the sky.

Pelican carcasses are often found lying to rot on both sides of Texas Highway 48 near the Texas-Mexico border.

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It's a site long-time fisherman Jose Delgado is all too familiar with.

“I have seen them being run over,” he said in Spanish.

The carcasses are seen along a stretch of Highway 48 that crosses over the Bahia Grande Bay, a wetland near Brownsville where people like to fish and many animals call home, including the once-endangered brown pelican.

“They’ll be flying along level flight and then down they go to the road,” said Dr. Thomas De Maar, a veterinarian at Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

It's phenomenon that Dr. De Maar has studied before.

“They’re basically headed home at the end of the day after fishing all day and they come up the ship channel, and then up the Gayman Channel, which is probably their navigational points,” he said. “And then they cross this bridge.”

Crossing the bridge is one thing. Doing it as cold fronts bringing gusty winds is another thing for the pelicans.

A local pelican rescuer took video Thursday evening, ahead of the snowfall. The images show how pelicans struggled to fly north across the Gayman Bridge, where they typically roost. Another video shows a pelican nose diving to the side of the eastbound lane of the highway.

“They just kind of go, then they drop and they just stand there and they’re like, ‘Well, I’m out of the wind now, and this is ok,’ and then they get hit by a car,” wildlife biologist Justin LeClaire described.

LeClaire believes that the jersey barriers on the road cause the winds to push the pelicans to the ground.

This issue prompted local activists like LeClaire and Dr. De Maar to create the "pelican team" after 80 pelicans were killed in one night last year.

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This time around, they saved nearly 200, according to LeClaire.

“It gives me goosebumps,” Dr. De Maar said. “I wish that every conservation effort had this kind of outpouring of local success.”

Saving the animals is not only important to environmentalist, but also vital to local tourism. It’s one of the reasons LeClaire, a Vermont native, migrated here like the birds he watches escaping winter.

“I don’t get paid for this but this is more rewarding than any work that I do,” LeClaire said.

The Pelican Team is holding meetings with the Texas Department of Transportation to find a solution to the problem. For now, large lit-up signs warn drivers of the presence of flying pelicans.