Let’s say you have a sore throat, so you decide to step into the bathroom, turn on all the bright lights around the sink, and look deep in your gullet to see if you can identify anything of concern, like swollen lymph nodes or raw mucosa. But instead of the usual suspects, you see this:
Hordes of biting lice of varying ages, from newborn nymphs to bloated adults. They’ve chewed your mucous membranes until they’ve become raw and inflamed.
If you were to see such a thing, you’d have to be a pelican or a cormorant, for these dastardly little critters are avian biting lice (a.k.a. pouch lice; Piagetiella peralis). They don’t only live on the outsides of birds, though; they have no qualms moving inside where they can chew on soft flesh without all those feathers getting in the way.
That horrific scene happens to be from an American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). Here’s the full view whence the above image was cropped.
While volunteering at Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, I participated in lice removal from several pelicans who were at the center due to various wounds and ailments (none having to do with lice, mind you).
The original handful of birds proved free of lice when they arrived. But a single bird was brought in later who did have lice. Its infestation was small and the ectoparasites went unnoticed for a few days. And that’s all the time a few lice needed to reproduce in large numbers and to infest the other pelicans. Thankfully the above pelican (the original host) had the worst problem while the other birds had significantly smaller crowds of the critters.
Avian lice such as this species have little interest in humans. That’s because the insects are specialized for hiding, breeding and feeding within a feathered environment. Lacking feathers, people don’t offer the creepy crawlies anything of interest.
So what happens to a louse when it’s removed from its host?
It gets dropped into a tub with a shallow layer of Sevin dust. There, each louse writhes in the poison just long enough to become completely covered with it, then a stillness falls over it and it becomes but one more dark speck in a growing sea of dark specks.
Unfortunately for the pelicans who find the removal and manhandling rather disagreeable, the process had to be done to ensure their health while they are cared for in preparation for release back to the wild. The lice can only make the birds’ recovery more difficult, so it behooves the caregivers to keep them clean and to remove the little nibblers before they cause complications.