Experts on sea birds say flocks of rare brown California pelicans have become too dependant on a "free lunch"--restaurant scraps and hand-outs--and are being wiped out by a cholera-like epidemic.
Dan Anderson, of the University of California at Davis, said life has been so easy for the big birds on Monterey's tourist-laden Fisherman's Wharf that they became docile and refused to migrate south six weeks ago. He said the easy feeding has made "pier bums" of the birds, which are becoming more and more aggressive, fighting over scraps, chasing children and even biting the hands that feed them.
"They're sticking around because they're getting a free lunch," concurred Jim Bennett, of the Monterey County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In response to growing numbers of pelicans that began washing up on Monterey Peninsula beaches in October, the SPCA this month began posting "please don't feed the pelicans" signs along the wharf. Wharf merchants last week contributed by agreeing to a feeding ban, and shut down stands where tourists could buy 75-cent bags of bait fish sold as "sea lion food."
Instead of tossing the fish to the sea lions barking on rocks just off shore, the tourists were offering them to the panhandling pelicans.
More than 300 pelicans have died since last October and many survivors have become so weak and listless they literally fall off docks and wharf buildings. Federal and state wildlife officials toured the area Friday to learn the severity of the problem.
"Look at those guys," said Dave Hunter, of the state Department of Fish and Game, pointing to about 20 pelicans crowded around a pile of fish scraps. "They slept in late and they don't even have to go out and look for (fish.("
Wildlife officials speculated that stress from overcrowding, competition for food and disruption of pelican life has made the big birds susceptible to a bacteria they would normally fight off.
"It's a classic man-wildlife interaction," Hunter said. "People think they're doing the right thing, but they're really hurting the animals.