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Feeding the pelicans of Kangaroo Island

John Ayliffe makes no secret of the fact that what he does is illegal, and even if it were not, then it would at least be questionable. Indeed, it has led to his arrest on more than one occasion. Yet over a period of twenty years, he has built up such a following that the authorities seem to have given up trying to stop him. He has the media on his side. The tourist brochures advertise his activities and coach loads of visitors arrive each afternoon to watch his performance. And to make sure everyone gets to the right place, an official signpost points to the venue at which he can be seen.

Lying to the south-west of Adelaide, Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third largest island, after Tasmania and Melville Island. Its population struggles toward 5000, with more than a third living in Kingscote and the rest scattered through what has all the characteristics of a wilderness.

We spotted our first wallaby twenty minutes after leaving the ferry at Penneshaw, just as we pulled off the main road onto the dirt track that led to our chalet at Island Beach. We were to see many more during the next three days, hopping around the rough ground that stood in for our garden and served to reinforce the wilderness ambience. Our chalet, “Sea That”, proved perfect for our short stay, clean, spacious and extremely well-equipped, and with a balcony view across more scrubby land toward the sandy beaches and turquoise waters of Eastern Cove.

After settling in with a short lunch, we drove to Emu Bay, on the island’s north coast, where we spotted some pelicans, terns and a pair of pink-eared ducks. Back in Kingscote, we visited the Bay of Shoals Winery, where we bought a sample of its produce, largely because the illustration on the bottle was of a pair of pelicans, a bird for which my wife, Therese, has always had a soft spot.

2103152 (3)In fact, pelicans were the reason we arrived in Kingscote that afternoon. We parked the car near the wharf and made our way to a small, wooden amphitheatre set above the rocks that lined the harbour. Half-a-dozen of the birds perched on the rocks, along with a similar number of silver gulls. We were the only people at first, but over the next several minutes, others arrived, and the seats began to fill. At the same time, more pelicans flew in, some singly, others gliding in groups on widespread wings, like squadrons of bombers accompanied by gulls posing as fighter escorts, until perhaps fifty padded around us on the stage. A coach arrived and its passengers filled the remaining seats and crowded around the standing area at the back.

On the dot of five o’clock, a car pulled up and John Ayliffe stepped out, carrying a large plastic box full of fish, which he placed on a lectern that stood in the centre of the stage. He wore a pair of rubber gloves, waterproof overalls and a battered hat, all of which were to prove indispensable.

John has been coming here on a daily basis for the past twenty years, to feed the pelicans. On Kangaroo Island, nobody is allowed to feed the wild creatures, a prohibition he has ignored. Despite several prosecutions, he has continued his efforts, which have now become a significant tourist attraction. Each time he has been arrested, he has called in representatives of the television and newspapers, who have always backed him up, and he has found legal loopholes that have allowed him to continue. As he assured us, he only feeds a tiny proportion of the island’s pelicans, and the birds are in no way dependent upon the few fishy scraps he gives them.

2103154 (3)He tossed a few morsels into the air. These were immediately snatched, on the wing, by gulls, one of which came to perch on his hat to get nearer the source. Then he began to pass whole fish to the pelicans that packed into a tight huddle around him, their long beaks waving and clapping in the air like so many swords in a mediaeval battle.

“Now you know why I wear overalls,” he said. “ You wouldn’t wear a kilt for this job.”

The Australian breed, John informed us, are the largest of the world’s pelicans, and range from South Indonesia to North Tasmania. They have little oil on their feathers and so are less well adapted than other aquatic birds for long periods in the water. Unlike American pelicans, they cannot dive, and feed by herding, and scooping into their beaks, fish that swim near the surface.

2103153 (3)When John began feeding the pelicans, and for several subsequent years, he did so on the boulders of the shore. When he fell and broke bones, the council, realising that even this would not curtail his activities, decided that Health and Safety would have to intervene. They built the platform and rising terraces of seats as a music venue for the local school, with the tacit understanding that John might wish to use it whenever it was not required by the school. “So far,” he told us, “the school has not used the facility.”

With so many noisily snapping beaks to fill, it was not long before there were only fragments left in the box. John emptied these into the sea, at which point the pelicans and gulls, en masse, vacated the platform. This was when the gulls claimed the advantage. The pelicans, unable to dive, merely circled about, whacking the water ineffectually with their beaks, while the gulls followed the scraps down, sweeping up each one before it had sunk even half way to the bottom.

Having finished his show, John made a request for voluntary donations toward his expenses, which consist almost entirely of the cost of the fresh fish he buys each day for the pelicans. Having so obviously enjoyed the performance, few, if any, refused. John Ayliffe clearly loves this daily interlude, and has no doubts that he is making a real contribution to the appreciation of these magnificent birds by all who come to watch. In addition to the frustrated opposition from the authorities, he relishes his soubriquet of ‘The Pelican Man’. As he concluded, “In twenty years, I have not had a single complaint from a pelican.”
Pelicans at Kangaroo Island

More by this author on his website.

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