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Lakeshore community unites to bring injured pelican back to health

Penny, a young pelican found injured in late August, was flown on Thursday to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility in the Sudbury area on Thursday

An injured pelican is on the road to recovery after receiving a little help and quite a bit of love from residents along the shore of Lake Superior east of the city.

Penny, a young pelican who had been cared for by people in the Birch Beach and McKenzie Beach areas of Shuniah for the last several weeks, was flown to Sudbury on Thursday to be sent to a licensed rehabilitation facility.

Deb Bissonnette and her family were enjoying dinner at their Birch Beach home on Aug. 31, when the young pelican showed up at her doorstep.

“She had a large wound to her body and her neck obviously in jeopardy — it was twisted, it wasn’t proper,“ she said. “She had trouble swallowing. We could tell she was weak and not doing so great.

“We just started to feed her raw fish and found we had to cut it up into really small pieces for her to be able to swallow them. We realized just how weak she was upon her arrival about five days after she was with us because she all of the sudden started squawking and making her noises — she had been silent for five days.”

Bissonnette said Penny had been born earlier this year, and would have only been a few months old when she arrived at her doorstep. Penny is suspected to have contracted West Nile virus earlier in the summer before being attacked by some other animal, she added.

The pelican, initially named Pete but was subsequently renamed after they learned it was a female, became a regular fixture at the Bissonnette home for the next five weeks, where she was fed three or four pounds of fish every day and slowly regained her strength.

“Each week we could see her progression,” she said, adding her daughter, Alex, became Penny’s main rehabilitator. “Alex was researching and taking her into the water, making her swim, and then we watched Penny start to troll for fish herself.”

It didn’t take Penny long to fit in with the Bissonnette family.

“She’s just a sassy girl. She doesn’t like mackerel. My daughter has videos feeding her mackerel and Penny refused to eat it, and then she squawked at my daughter to get more. She has such a personality,” Bissonnette said.

“It wasn’t hard to fall in love with her, even though I had to hose my deck off twice a day.”

By last weekend, they started slowing the feeding in hopes of helping Penny become more independent ahead of seasonal migration.

On Oct. 6, she flew and left the Birch Beach area, but only made it a few kilometres along the lakeshore before finding her next temporary landing spot. 

Don Smith was returning to his McKenzie Beach home the next night when he got a call from a neighbour, telling him he had a visitor on his deck. That's where he found Penny.

Smith posted about the pelican on Facebook, which caught the attention of Bissonnette. She filled him and the other McKenzie Beach residents about Penny’s month with her family.

At McKenzie Beach, Penny would explore the length of the beach in search of meals and made plenty of friends. 

“It's incredible and it's an absolutely gorgeous bird, absolutely beautiful bird,” Smith said.

While Penny was warmly welcomed by her new McKenzie Beach family, all involved in her care realized she needed to go somewhere before winter arrived.

With her appearing to have missed the migration window and showing no inclination of leaving, along with no local facilities licensed to care for a pelican, they sought out options elsewhere in the province. The Turtle Pond Wildlife Centre in the Sudbury area offered to take Penny, but transportation had to be arranged.

After working out logistics for a few days, Bearskin Airlines provided a free flight for Penny on Thursday, where she arrived to her new home.

Bissonnette has no second thoughts about her five weeks with Penny.

“When a pelican shows up on your doorstep and looks through your door at you and you know it needs some help — you just do it,” she said.

With files from Gary Rinne

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