The forensic verdict remains out, bird experts said Monday, but the circumstantial evidence is chilling: Someone has shot or intentionally crushed the wings of 14 endangered California brown pelicans found since Christmas in the Long Beach Harbor area.
None of the 14 birds survived their injuries.
The latest two were found over the weekend, their wings so damaged that specialists at the International Bird Rescue Research Center's San Pedro facility could not save them; they were euthanized, said center director Jay Holcomb.
"We believe the pelicans were intentionally injured," Holcomb said Monday. "It's too coincidental to have this many birds with wings injured in the same place, found in the same general area, and at the same time also getting birds who appear to have been shot.... And there is precedent, in the past, of people hurting pelicans."
After injured pelicans started showing up in the Cabrillo Beach area in December, necropsies and other examinations began at the Oregon forensic lab of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that enforces the federal Endangered Species Act.
Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Bruce Toloski said the lab will determine the cause of the pelican deaths and launch a formal investigation if it concludes that the birds' injuries were unlikely to have happened naturally. Toloski asked the public to be watchful for any pelican abuse and to report it to the wildlife service, (310) 328-1516, or the state Department of Fish and Game, (888) 334-2258.
The International Bird Rescue Research Center "is a long-standing organization with a good reputation for what they do," Toloski said, "so I have no reason to dispute their theories on what happened to the pelicans. But they don't have a forensic pathologist on their staff, so we have to rely on those results."
He said the forensics work could take many more weeks.
The California brown pelican is an endangered species, with only an estimated 5,000 mating pairs remaining in the world, Holcomb said. Because the pelican, with its pronounced scooper beak and relatively large size -- 10 to 12 pounds, commonly -- is ubiquitous on the coast, the public may not realize the species is under protection.
That the injured pelicans were otherwise healthy birds approaching April mating season makes the loss even worse, Holcomb said: The pelican produces only one egg a year. It is possible to tell when mating season is nearing, he said, because the pelican's coloring will become more vivid.
Lifeguards reported the most recent pelican injuries. They found one bird Saturday at Cabrillo Beach and a second pelican Sunday about four or five miles north, along the shore cliffs beneath Rancho Palos Verdes, Holcomb said.
The two birds were found alive, but their wings had compound fractures, the bones tearing through muscle and nerves as they tried frantically to fly.
Toloski said lifeguards received reports of possibly three more injured pelicans over the weekend, but because sanitation workers apparently disposed of them before bird rescuers arrived, it was hard to know for sure.
Of the previous dozen pelicans found injured or dead before the weekend, at least nine appeared to have been shot in the same spot on the neck, the rescue center said.
Who would want to hurt a pelican, a bird with an almost cartoonish presence? The rescue center's Karen Benzel said there is a history of pelican maiming and even torture, and cases in Oregon in which birds' beaks were hacked off.
Witnesses reported pelicans being intentionally snagged with fish hooks and swung around in the air from charter fishing "party" boats in recent years.
Fishermen and pelicans are often at cross-purposes, angling after the same small fish such as anchovy.
It was stressed Monday that nobody is implicating fishermen. Pelicans often are injured in the wild or by accident, fish hooks snagging them, Toloski said.