OKALOOSA ISLAND — The Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge has taken in a red-footed booby, a very rare bird that typically lives in tropical and subtropical oceans.
Shelby Proie, marine mammal stranding coordinator and wildlife health technician at the refuge, said the bird arrived Saturday after jumping aboard a fisherman’s boat off Destin.
“They’re really rare here,” Proie said. “They nest offshore, so to see them near the continental U.S. is rare. You see them mostly off the California coast and the Hawaiian islands, and they’re seen in Ecuador a lot.”
Proie isn’t sure how this lone bird made its way to the Gulf Coast, but she suspects it may be a young mature bird who got lost or separated from its colony. Other than being emaciated, it had no visible injuries, but refuge officials plan to have it X-rayed to see if it ingested a man-made object such as a hook that could have prevented it from eating.
The red-footed booby has white feathers and, true to its name, bright red feet. The birds are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their time on the open sea, occasionally finding places to perch.
Proie said the birds don’t see humans as predators because they interact with them so rarely, so refuge workers have been able to tube feed it a fish oil extract to help it gain weight as they prepare to upgrade it to fish and, eventually, release it.
“It could be weeks or it could be months, we just don’t know,” Proie said. “We probably won’t be able to release him here. We’ll take him somewhere closer to where his own kind is, which right now it’s looking like the Dry Tortugas (near Key West) might have a colony.”
For now, the bird is responding well to the refuge’s rehabilitation efforts. Director Susan Leveille said even though the bird is the first of its kind to find itself at their facility, workers were ready to take in such an unusual case.
“We are prepared for anything on any given day,” Leveille said. “It’s interesting when an animal comes in who isn’t typically found in our area, and it’s part of our protocol with any animal that comes here to determine their needs and natural habitats … the challenge that we’re facing with this guy is getting him back to where he needs to be.”