When John Audubon first visited the Punta Gorda area on Florida’s Gulf coast in the early 19th century, he wrote that wading birds were so numerous that thousands flying overhead transformed daylight into darkness. Yet less than 100 years later the profligate population had been decimated. In small part, the decline was caused by homesteaders moving in by the droves and spoiling habitats. Far more destructive, however, was the quest for plumage to decorate ladies’ hats. Hired by fashion houses in Paris, New York and London, poachers and hunters slaughtered millions of birds in their quest for white nuptial feathers of the great and snowy egrets. By the early 1900’s, only an estimated 500,000 wading birds remained.
In 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty Act became law and these birds were finally protected. By the 1930’s their numbers had increased to 1.2 million and since the 1970’s they have made a significant recovery. Today, standing on the shores of the Peace River in Punta Gorda, Florida, birds are abundant: egrets, herons, ibis, spoonbills, and wood storks are among the species easily spotted. Yet wading birds, reptiles, and mammals who inhabit the area still face serious threats from mankind. Discarded plastic bags, six-pack plastic rings, and lead sinkers and fishing line lost by fishermen can cause serious damage to animals when swallowed or snagged. Collisions with cars and trucks are a major problem for endangered species such as Florida black bears, Florida panthers, Key deer, American crocodiles, indigo snakes, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and brown pelicans.
Fortunately, Peace River Wildlife Center is there to help. The nonprofit organization, which occupies a small corner of Ponce de Leon Park in Punta Gorda, is dedicated to the rehabilitation, preservation and protection of Charlotte County’s native wildlife. With the exception of a few paid employees, the center is staffed entirely by dedicated volunteers who work seven days per week, and is funded solely by donations, bequests, aluminum can recycling, and profit from gift shop sales – quite remarkable considering an estimated 2,000 injured animals are admitted each year.
Most “patients” are rehabilitated and released back into their natural habitat. The few animals that have injuries too extensive to be released live out their remaining days at the center. Among the 120 current residents are a pair of bald eagles with amputated wings and a fish crow named Spirit who “quacks” like a duck, but pelicans are the hands-down favorite of visitors, especially during feeding time, when they surround the volunteer and squabble over fish tossed from a plastic bucket. Most days, the pelicans are fed in a large open-air cage located just a few feet from the public viewing area, but since there is no roof on this habitat, outside avian visitors (mainly herons and black buzzards) sometimes fly in and try to steal some of the booty. When this happens, the pelicans are herded into a secure cage at the rear of the facility and visitors miss out on the feeding spectacle, although the sight of volunteers waddling behind these gangly birds, trying to coax them into a cage, is almost as entertaining.
Peace River Wildlife Center welcomes human visitors seven days a week between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Guests are welcome to roam the facility unaccompanied, or may request a guided tours from a volunteers, who not only describe the story behind each resident, but also share advice about what individuals can do to help conserve rare, threatened, and endangered species and their habitats. Surprisingly, no admission is required, although donations of cash and aluminum cans are gratefully accepted.
(Note: Still photos of eagle, owl, and injured bird in the above video are courtesy of Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau)