Rescued brown pelicans released in San Pedro


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California brown pelicans have recently been dying in large numbers for reasons wildlife officials don’t yet fully understand.

Organizations like the International Bird Rescue Research Center are maxed out, with no more room and little money left to help, spokesman Paul Kelway said.


There are usually about 400 pelicans among the more than 2,000 birds the San Pedro center takes in every year, but it has received more than 300 pelicans in the last three weeks. About 100 sick pelicans from Santa Barbara were sent to the IBRRC’s Northern California center, and a quarter of all the pelicans received at the two centers in the last three weeks have died, Kelway said.

‘Many of them were severely emaciated and hypothermic, and we couldn’t get to them in time,’ Kelway said.

The Southern California center released 14 pelicans Wednesday afternoon to make room for more of the ailing birds. At Royal Palms State Beach in San Pedro, rescue workers lined the pet kennels along the rocky shoreline and opened the doors. The pelicans flew right out.

The Coast Guard reported a group of sick birds in the Los Angeles Harbor on Tuesday. Rescue workers found around 30 dead birds and rounded up 30 more that were sick and wet.

Biologists point to several reasons why more birds need help.

‘This is an El Nino year. The weather is topsy turvy. Storms are forcing the fish deeper into the ocean, or the fish are in different places than they normally would be. The pelicans are not finding food and they are starving,’ Kelway explained.

‘Something is also contaminating their feathers and stopping them from being weatherproof,’ he said. ‘The storms have been the final nail in the coffin.’

Some parts of Los Angeles County have received close to 12 inches of rain in the last few weeks. The birds, already weak from lack of food, have gotten soaked, and in the ocean they’ve found themselves bathed in a murky runoff goo that has coated their already faltering feathers with a layer of grease. Another possible cause is an algae bloom, Kelway said.

Feathers have been taken from the sick birds and sent to a lab, he said.

When there is no food in the water, the birds will look on land, Kelway said, and they’re ailing in very public places -- on piers, at restaurants, hotels, harbors and beaches.

‘People are upset,’ he said. ‘They expect us to rescue these birds.’

About 1,000 California brown pelicans stayed in Oregon this year instead of migrating south to breeding grounds.

It could be a natural pelican die-off, Kelway said, but biologists don’t know yet.

The research center hopes to release several more pelicans over the next week. Warmer temperatures should help, he said.

It is costing the two centers about $3,000 a day to care for the pelicans, which eat around 1,000 pounds of fish each day.

The rescues will have to do some serious fundraising, pushing their ‘Adopt a Pelican’ and ‘Pelican Partner’ programs, Kelway said.

All of the pelicans are banded, so if they get in trouble again, there will be a record. Some of the birds recuperating at the centers have been at the shelters before, Kelway said, although none of those released Wednesday was a repeat customer.

The brown pelican nearly became extinct in the early 1970s because of the pesticide DDT -- the birds ate tainted fish and laid such thin-shelled eggs that they broke during incubation. But when DDT was banned in 1972, the birds bounced back, and today the brown pelican is prevalent along the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, California, Washington and Oregon.

The brown pelican was taken off the federal endangered species list in November, and its global population, including the Caribbean and Latin America, is estimated at 650,000.

-- Associated Press

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Top photo: A pelican is released in San Pedro after being nursed back to health by the International Bird Rescue Research Center on Feb. 9. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

Video: SavingSeabirds via YouTube