Images of Mr Percival strutting his stuff on the beaches of Port Noarlunga, cheekily calling into shops on The Strand, Port Elliot and flapping across to Goolwa and the spectacular Coorong are about to mesmerise us on a big screen.
This adorable character, who stole the limelight as a pelican in Colin Thiele’s classic 1964 novel Storm Boy, which became a movie in 1976 and is now being beautifully recalled through Academy Award winning actor Geoffrey Rush, will undeniably win our hearts once more.
But it is the story behind the pelecanus – all 12 of them specially reared for this latest movie launched on January 17 – that reveals the sometimes heart-wrenching truth and fascinating character of these majestic creatures.
One of the real heroes of Storm Boy is associate professor Greg Johnston BSc(Hons) PhD, an adjunct professor at the School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, who sourced the pelicans to be trained for the movie. In order to best understand their amazing world he led us through 5km of swamp on a man-made, unnamed island – often referred to as Bird Island – Outer Harbour to their natural habitat.
Greg, now semi-retired, has studied pelicans since 1990, and his first remarkable finding was that there had only been one scientific paper written on them, in the mid-60s.
“I thought, how could we have these thumping big birds living right on the edge of Adelaide and knowing stuff all about them,” Greg said. “That’s where it all started for me, and it remains a passion.
“With this research I have been able to marvel at them in their natural habitat, at times feel their pain, and make sure during the making of this movie the well-being of the pelicans was at all times considered to be of paramount importance, which it certainly was to everyone involved.”
Before anything, Greg stipulated that homes for the 12 pelicans used to make the movie had to be found before filming started. Some went to Adelaide Zoo, a place on Kangaroo Island, at Gorge Wildlife Park, and a couple to Queensland.
“These birds can live up to 60 years so you just can’t take them, use them in a movie over six or 12 months of filming and then dump them into the wild,” Greg said. “They would not be able to look after themselves because the parents teach the young how to hunt fish. If they have been raised by humans from chicks they couldn’t do any of that.
“Pelicans lay two eggs. In a bad year they won’t get any chicks through, a good year they’ll get two, and most years just one. There are all sorts of adaptations. Year to year there might be less food so they can’t actually bring enough in to raise two.
“The parents actually play favourites; they lay the first egg bigger than the second egg two days apart. If there is not enough food around the older chick is grumpy because it is hungry and picks on the young chick and kills it. The parents will then get one good quality chick through instead of possibly not getting either because they would have needed to spread the food among both.
“In a good year they can afford to feed that second chick which is smaller and younger, and it can recover from the early disadvantage.
“Sometimes we do experiments at a colony every day for six weeks, so the pelicans may get used to us. Initially they will stay a few metres away and eventually you will be sitting on a nest measuring chicks and you have pelicans chewing on your jumper.
“Because we knew the second chick usually doesn’t make it we waited at a nest and then we took eggs or chicks that were laid second, knowing by taking those we wouldn’t be changing the productivity on the island. We got birds for the movie that would have died under normal circumstances, and we hand-reared them for three months until they fledged.
“At four or five weeks old we had someone work with the chicks and start training them. By the time they actually fledged they were responding and coming to us on demand.
“In the Storm Boy movie you think there are just three pelicans, which you see from chickdom, but different birds are being used all the way through, including six as adults.
“We did that because different birds respond to different situations and you don’t want to put all the emphasis on one bird because you have to rest them. Doing a movie like this is obviously unusual for them; it can be stressful, and if you over-stress a bird you will create problems.
“We had spare birds for the movie that we could cycle through and use at different stages. None of them were over-exposed and their health wasn’t compromised; that is for sure.
“As adults, pelicans pretty much look the same. As chicks they have actual face markings which was a problem for filming. The people making the film didn’t at first realise that, and one said, ‘hang on, that bird had a white face a minute ago, we can’t have that’.”
The availability of the “unwanted” chick eggs was also largely about great timing. When Greg first studied pelicans he was wrong in assuming that because they colonised on this man-made island they fed on fish from the sea.
“I didn’t realise pelicans had trouble with salt,” he said. “They prefer to forage in fresh water and that’s why you see them in the Torrens Lake, in reservoirs and along the Murray.
“Pelicans will travel 300-400km in a day to get food, and that is not a big deal for them. They’ll fly to Renmark, get some fish, fly back and feed the chicks in a day. However, it’s the fresh water and rainfall that drives this colony on the coast.
“In 2016 when we had big spring storms these pelicans went bunta. There were 700 nests on the island at once and we had more than 450 chicks come through, which is an amazing success rate. In a normal year you might have the same number of nests, but spread out the whole year and you might only have 150-250 chicks survive.
“Had we had heaps of rain leading up to the filming and the pelicans would have had enough feed for both of their chicks, so it would have been difficult taking them for the movie.
“Pelicans respond quickly to a weather situation. Self-awareness is also one of the hallmarks of intelligence in creatures… dolphins have it, so do whales, chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. Pelicans have this awareness too, and that’s why they were able to be trained so well.”
However, it is the ability of the pelicans to know the behaviour of humans that can often be their downfall.
“It seems that every individual human wants to interact with wildlife and pelicans in particular,” Greg said. “People fish and a pelican comes along and they throw it one and think they are doing a great job.
“The pelican sits there and waits for the next fisherman to come along and it thinks, well that person looks the same, it has a fish for me. The problem is, they see someone, little kids with a sandwich or chips, and they attack.
“A couple of years ago a council contacted me because they had an elderly bloke who was hospitalised after this pelican had stolen his sandwich on the foreshore. These birds had been trained by all these people to attack people through being fed and this poor old guy happened to be at the end of the line and the pelican got shot.
“There are about 40 pelicans shot every year along the Murray because of this reason. It is kept quiet because they don’t want people to get upset. People say they are just trying to do the right thing, but their constituents aren’t doing the right thing by the pelicans.
“Some pelicans have become completely habituated and reliant on people for food. Most of them don’t, but the ones that are are the ones who get shot.
“We are also to blame with fish hooks. There are situations where birds get trained to come up to fishermen and they learn that the fish is down there on a hook and they are actively grabbing fish and the hook. That’s why they are getting tangled.
“In Benalla, off the NSW coast, fishermen fish nearly all the time and there are a lot of pelicans. When they closed the area for fishing for various reasons suddenly the fauna rescue people weren’t getting calls about birds being hooked up and tangled because there were no fishermen there.
“It is a people problem, but why would someone think that way? I can’t criticise a person for wanting to interact with a pelican; yes, they are trying to be nice, enjoying the environment and the organisms that we share our planet with, but they don’t get the whole picture. Until you see the fauna rescue and put all of that story together you will have no idea how cruel this so-called kindness can be.”
Greg has deep concerns for the well-being of pelicans with a shameful lack of consideration for the long-term impact. He talks of a change in management practises 10 years ago when they forced the foxes to leave Torrens Island only to encourage them to walk 7km where this unnamed pelican island was at the time linked by silt. For 10 years now the foxes have caused havoc to the pelican nests.
There was also the time Greg worked for a mining company in Iron Baron which poured untold gallons of DDT into the septic/fresh water system to kill mozzies, which the eagles drank and suddenly their egg shells became brittle and they stopped breeding.
It backed up the findings of Daniel Anderson of the University of California, who warned us from the effects of using DDT. Greg had always looked up to him, and for some time now this gifted American academic has taken a huge interest in Greg’s project here because pelican colonies in the United States of America have been at huge risk of becoming extinct because of pesticides.
Greg leaves no doubt the experience rearing the pelicans for the Storm Boy movie was special, but even the adventures of Mr Percival cannot hide his concerns or frustration relating to how we can help protect the well being of his family members still on this unnamed island.
However, on this day across the swamp there were positive signs of the colony’s future. A lot of male pelicans had a glowing pink bill, which according to Greg indicated they were, well, thinking about starting another family – and usually with a different ‘wife’.
And by the way, the zoos and wildlife parks who ended up with the 12 pelicans from the Storm Boy experience all think they got the one and only star himself, Mr Percival. For the record, one which went to Queensland is making another movie; Stork Trek, perhaps.