INDIAN SHORES, Fla — A local seabird enthusiast and conservationist who founded the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary reportedly died over the weekend.
Ralph Heath Jr., died Saturday, Oct. 2 after a short illness, the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary said in a Facebook post. He was 76 years old.
Health started the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in 1971 after rescuing a Cormorant with a broken wing and nursing the bird back to health. He was an avid conservationist and loved all of Florida's wildlife but especially loved the state's seabirds.
As word spread that he was treating and rehabilitating injured birds and returning them to the wild, people began bringing sick and injured birds from up and down the Gulf Coast.
Heath studied pre-med and received a degree in Zoology. He not only treated sick birds but also rescued birds himself, including those from the Mangrove Islands where he found them entangled in fishing hooks and lines.
"These birds, which included species as rare as Magnificent Frigate Birds and White Pelicans, were treated at the Sanctuary in what became the largest wild bird hospital in the U.S.," the organization said.
After rehabilitation, those rescued birds were released back into the wild and those whose injuries were too severe to allow for release lived out their days in the sanctuary enclosures.
The enclosures included pools and native planting.
Namely, Heath was credited with helping to bring back the Brown Pelican from the brink of extinction as a result of DDR poisoning. The sanctuary provided a safe place for the birds to successfully hatch and fledge their young.
His family and friends will forever remember him as "the bird man of St. Petersburg."