California pelicans are mysteriously injured and starving

Veterinarian Jamie Sherman of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network examines a brown pelican while volunteer Diane Carter holds the bird, in an exam at the International Bird Rescue in San Pedro.

Zoologists are trying to figure out what’s behind an influx of sick and injured brown pelicans along the California coast. Between May 12 and May 30, 220 of the birds ended up at the International Bird Rescue in San Pedro, a non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of sick, injured or oiled waterfowl. That’s the highest number of pelicans International Bird Rescue’s LA and San Francisco facilities see in a typical year, but it only takes 2.5 weeks.

International Bird Rescue veterinarian Rebecca Duerr says post-mortem examinations so far show the animals are starving. They show no symptoms of disease, such as avian flu. Duerr says they still don’t know what’s going on and why it happened so suddenly.

The hardest hit areas appear to be Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, with a few sick birds also showing up in Orange, San Diego and Monterey counties. Several dead brown pelicans also appeared on the beaches.

A California brown pelican rests in a dog crate in the intake area of ​​the International Bird Rescue San Pedro facility in May 2022. Photo by Susan Valot.

At International Bird Rescue, large moving boxes fill the admissions room, each with a pelican inside, sometimes pushing their heads against the flaps of the closed box. The smell of fish wafts through the air like a pall of smoke from a 1960s Las Vegas casino.

Duerr points out that everyone wears a mask here because they can’t afford anyone going out sick right now. A few workers came from other rehabilitation facilities to help.

Duerr says it’s hard to tell if a pelican is starving just by looking at it.

“Even though they are a really big bird in terms of size, they don’t weigh that much,” she says. “They really only weigh about the same amount as a heavy cat because much of their insides are made up of air. They are very buoyant birds and their skin is structured like bubble wrap. .

She says pelicans use this air-filled buoyancy like a floating toy on the water, letting them dive for fish and quickly come to the surface. When birds are emaciated, they become even more puffy with air, so you can’t tell until you pick them up and feel how light they are.

“They allow people to approach, not fly away,” says Duerr. “They might just be squatting on the beach, looking pathetic, letting dogs approach them, that sort of thing. A normal bird will stand up and stare at you then fly away.

The International Bird Rescue takes in birds from rehabilitation centers in Santa Barbara and other coastal areas that have been flooded to the point where they no longer have room.

Most of the pelicans that arrive are at least 1 year old and about 40% are mature enough to breed. That means they’re not babies who can’t fish. These are birds that have survived on their own for some time in the wild.

“What this suggests to us is that there seems to be a problem with them finding food, but no one really knows why at this point yet,” Duerr says.

Brown pelicans eat fish in an aviary at the International Bird Rescue in San Pedro. Birds that have arrived in this area are feeling better and are almost ready to be released into the wild. Photo by Susan Valot.

Many brown pelicans also arrive entangled in fishing hooks and lines, apparently trying to hunt for food where anglers use hooks and bait to attract fish. One bird had a dozen fangs all over the outside of its body, reports Duerr.

Pelicans are struggling to find food right now, and they don’t have a choice of other things to eat, so please don’t cast your line where they are eating,” Duerr says.

This isn’t the first time the brown pelican has been in trouble in California. It had been on the federal endangered species list for decades, plagued by problems caused by the pesticide DDT buried offshore. The California brown pelican was removed from the endangered species list in 2009, then the following year was hit by a similar wave of sick birds, with another crush of sick pelicans in 2012. Each of these incidents lasted some months.

When sick or injured pelicans are brought in, rescuers sort, weigh and tag them. Then, those who are well enough to regulate their temperature are put into groups in two large camping tents in one room. This gives the birds a quiet space to rest, and volunteers and workers can observe them more closely.

Pelicans in worse condition are sent to a warmer intensive care area where they are carefully monitored.

“If the birds aren’t self-feeding, we’ll actually make them a little fish shake,” says Kylie Clutterbuck, director of International Bird Rescue. She says each bird can eat up to five pounds of fish a day.

The birds make their way through a series of rooms over the days, depending on their state of mind. When they are better, they are moved to outdoor aviaries where the birds can fly, swim and preen, just as they would in the wild.

Pelicans rest and preen along a pool in an aviary at the International Bird Rescue facility in San Pedro. Photo by Susan Valot.

The rehab center doesn’t want to release any of the recovered pelicans until they have a better understanding of what’s going on. So they are here at least for a few more weeks.

Clutterbuck says brown pelicans are one of his favorite birds in rehab.

“They are so resilient. They are coming back from horrible injuries. They recover really well from severe wasting,” says Clutterbuck. “Not all species do well in rehab. The pelicans are the exceptional ones. So no matter how many birds we take in, I know we will have a very good success rate with them.