Pelican in Florida Keys plucks phone from woman's hand after mistaking it for food, wildlife experts say

A juvenile brown pelican is recovering down in the Florida Keys after using its beak to steal a cell phone from a woman’s hand and swallowing it. Wildlife officials said it probably thought it was food, which demonstrates the dangers of feeding wild animals.

On Feb. 23 the pelican was found at a local marina in Islamorada. A good Samaritan contacted the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center to report that the pelican chowed down on a cell phone.

Staff members brought the young pelican back to the center. Jordan Budnik, the executive director, told FOX 13 the bird was experiencing discomfort but wasn’t in pain.

“Birds are sensitive to sedation and we try to avoid it when it is not necessary,” she explained. “It was not required for the phone removal.”

Instead, one of the center’s interns, Emma McCarthy, put on a glove and reached straight down into the pelican’s stomach to retrieve the phone. Adam Manglitz, a hospital technician at the center, held the pelican’s mouth open and extended its neck during the removal.

The “procedure” took less than 10 seconds and was captured on video. Budnik said the phone did make it all the way into the pelican’s stomach.

“Pelicans have a large throat/esophagus and when done carefully, it is possible to reach down all the way into their stomachs as seen here,” she explained. “Lucky for us, Emma has small hands and was able to retrieve the phone quickly.”

Budnik said no one in the general public should attempt to do this unless they are professionally-trained and permitted to handle wildlife.

While she doesn’t think the cell phone owner was illegally feeding fish to the pelican, staff members at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center believe the pelican thought the phone was a fish. The pelican was probably used to accepting fish handouts from people, they said.

In Florida, it’s against the law to feed pelicans.

“Part of the danger of feeding wildlife is 'habituation.' In other words: feeding a wild animal can alter its natural behaviors, diminish its fear of humans, and ultimately put it in situations like this – or worse,” Budnick explained. 

The video showing the removal of the cell phone was posted on the center’s Facebook page. McCarthy and Manglitz were heard chuckling, in which the post explains they were laughing in disbelief and relief. 

The pelican, which has been named by the center, “Cell Peli,” will be monitored before it's released back into the wild.

As for the cell phone, it was returned to the owner. It remains unclear whether it still functions properly, but, Budnick said, it was covered in fish guts and parasites when it was pulled out.