HAVANA — Pancho the Pelican apparently prefers the company of humans to his own kind, and the grit of the big city to a life spent soaring through the breeze above the Caribbean Sea.
The wayward seabird has become the toast of 23rd Street, a bustling Havana thoroughfare where the 2-foot-tall Pancho waddles down the sidewalk, wings spread and beak agape, as delighted children point and smoky 1950s Chevrolets rumble past.
He’s on a first-name basis with neighbors who’ve come to see him as one of their own. Paperboys greet him each morning with cries of “Panchoooooo, the paaaaaaper’s here!”
“When I saw him, it was love at first sight,” said Magela Guerrero, Pancho’s 32-year-old adopted “mom,” of whom he’s fiercely protective.
The bird came into her family’s life in 2011 when a neighbor fishing along Havana’s Malecon seawall found Pancho near death, practically featherless and without any appetite. Knowing that Guerrero takes in animals, the neighbor brought the pelican to her door.
The bird is a 3-year-old Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis, or Caribbean brown pelican, whose habitat ranges from the southern United States to the Brazilian Amazon.
A veterinarian prescribed a regimen of medicine and curative creams, and Guerrero nursed him through what seemed an unlikely recovery.
Pancho’s plumage has long since recovered its silky brown luster and he’s strong enough to flap his wings vigorously, but against expectations he never rejoined his brothers and sisters at sea.
“It’s been like this for a year and a half,” said Guerrero, a homemaker and mother of a 13-year-old son.
She repeatedly tried to reintroduce Pancho into the wild down at the Malecon, but he ignored other pelicans flying past. He might enjoy a dip in the sea and take flight briefly, but would always alight at her side. When she went to leave, he simply followed her on foot back to 23rd Street.
Guerrero said Pancho frequently accompanies her on walks and responds when she calls his name, even obeying commands to jump up on park benches. He also has a possessive streak, rubbing her ears with his long beak — and jabbing the beak at others who approach her.
“Just imagine, sometimes he doesn’t even let me get near her,” said Freddy de Leon, Guerrero’s 48-year-old husband.
Pancho behaves as if he’s just another member of the household, climbing up on the wooden rocking chairs. He sleeps in a bucket and gets daily hose-baths in the patio. Sometimes he flaps up to the roof to bask in the sun.
Perhaps his easy demeanor shouldn’t be surprising. Guerrero and de Leon’s home is a veritable menagerie of animals that they say coexist peacefully despite including both predators and potential prey: three dogs and a cat, a hawk, another bird of prey called a kestrel, a parrot, three turtles and a goose.
“It’s like a zoo here,” Guerrero said. “Kids always stop to look.”
The family has contacted a local aquarium about finding a mate for Pancho, but there’s no romance on the horizon yet.
Guerrero said the bird gulps down about 2 1/4 pounds (1 kilogram) of fish a day. His species needs a steady saline intake, so she feeds it to him in buckets of saltwater that a neighbor hauls in plastic bottles from the sea 10 blocks away.
“His favorite is sardines, but I’ve bought him everything,” Guerrero said. “At the fish market, we are well-known, regular clients.”
It’s no wonder Pancho doesn’t leave, with all those sardines served up by a doting adopted mama.