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In Pelican Mystery, Weather Is a Suspect

Posted by tothewire on January 16, 2009

Sick pelicans at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fairfield, Calif.

Sick pelicans at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fairfield, Calif.

FAIRFIELD, Calif. —What’s wrong with California’s pelicans?

More than 400 endangered California brown pelicans have been found dead or dying since late December, with disoriented and starving birds turning up on highways, in backyards, and even in the Arizona desert.

Now, though, after an investigation with all manner of sinister theories — from bird flu to poisoning by lingering fire retardant used to fight the region’s wildfires — California fish and game officials say they are closing in on a more usual suspect: Mother Nature.

According to a preliminary report to be released on Thursday, many of the birds now flooding West Coast animal hospitals and rescue centers were caught in a brutal snowstorm and cold snap on the Oregon-Washington border in mid-December, setting off an arduous and often life-threatening commute to warmer climes.

“Pelicans were observed in the middle of that storm and then seen moving south,” said David A. Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Game. About a week later, he said, ill birds started showing up on the California coast and further inland.

The tip-off for scientists, said Mr. Jessup, was frostbite. “It was severe in a lot of cases,” he said. “There were legs, toes and pouches frozen off.”

Other causes of the pelicans’ distress — including man-made contamination or disease — were still being examined, Mr. Jessup said, adding that some necropsy results on some birds from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service were pending. Initial tests have shown several birds with elevated levels of domoic acid, a neurotoxin which is generated by algae blooms and enters the food chain via algae-eating fish. But the cold seems the most likely explanation.

The mystery of the imperiled pelicans has been a hot topic up and down the Pacific Coast, where the birds have made a strong recovery after a near-decimation of the species in the 1970’s, when pesticides, particularly DDT, weakened the shells of the bird’s eggs.

In recent years, brown pelicans have been thriving, with hundreds of birds — which can sport yellow, gray and brown plumage and a six-foot wingspan — seen perching on cliffs like Pelican Point in Pismo Beach, on California’s central coast. The bird’s recovery has been so successful the federal government is considering taking the brown pelican off the endangered species list.

Volunteer Kristina Welch, left, and assistant manager Marie Travers evaluated a sick pelican at the International Bird Rescue Research Center.

Volunteer Kristina Welch, left, and assistant manager Marie Travers evaluated a sick pelican at the International Bird Rescue Research Center.

But just before Christmas, animal rescue workers started to report a sudden surge in pelicans appearing emaciated and near death. Many of the weakest birds died, and officials began post-mortems to see if a deadly new disease or contamination might be at work.


Jay Holcomb, the executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, in Fairfield, Calif., said his medical center had treated about 150 birds in recent weeks. Mr. Holcomb said the surge was alarming because most of the victims were adults, not the more vulnerable juveniles, and because the deaths of predators like pelicans, who dive for fish in shallow waters, can signal a larger environmental problem.

Then there was the pelicans’ behavior.

“They were landing in odd places, on the road and parking lots, in the snow, some way inland,” he said. “Adult birds don’t do that.”

The brown pelican’s traditional turf is roughly from Northern California to Baja in Mexico. In recent years, however, researchers say warmer weather and water, and plentiful sardines and anchovies, have led to pelicans populations as far north as British Columbia. And Mr. Jessup said large flocks of birds may have been caught off guard on East Sand Island in the Columbia River, where observers reported thousands of birds still roosting in early December.

Deborah Jaques, an Oregon-based wildlife biologist specializing in sea birds, said there may have been as many as 5,000 pelicans on the island when the storm hit, packing 60 mile-an-hour winds and freezing temperatures.

“These birds were probably not subject to any thing like this in a hundred years,” Ms. Jaques said.

Dan Anderson, an avian ecologist at University of California at Davis, said that once exposed to snow and extreme cold, the birds have a “tough time drying off” if soaked.

“They get wet and cold and that’s the end of them,” he said.

Many of the birds at Mr. Holcomb’s sanctuary, about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, were on the mend, feeding on a steady diet of fish. “Once they feel better, they’re starving,” he said. “They gorge, and we let them.”

And while the pelicans’ odd behavior probably confused the initial hunt for a cause, Mr. Jessup said it was understandable.

“They’d just flew a thousand miles and had their tails frozen off,” he said. “They probably weren’t feeling so well.”




One Response to “In Pelican Mystery, Weather Is a Suspect”

  1. dorian9 said

    oh no! pelicans have always been a favorite sea coast bird- they would be flying around us while we watched the sun set on the pacific or fishing on the surf or breakers. they are very graceful and peaceful birds, looking almost prehistoric..the changing weather patterns are really doing a number everywhere…
    weather channel says extreme cold coming to northeast , maine is bracing for 40 below zero tonight. unreal.


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