Pelicans at Risk

Mysterious Illness Afflicts California Natives

A sick, incapacitated brown pelican found at El Capitan Beach on Friday, February 19.
Lisa Conti

Though they were removed from both the state and federal endangered species lists in 2009, California brown pelicans are coming dangerously close to extinction once again—after inhabiting the earth for more than 40 million years.

Since the middle of January, from the coast of San Diego to the beaches of Oregon, hundreds of brown pelicans have been coming ashore distressed or dead. In Santa Barbara County alone, the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network is currently caring for more than 40 of the seabirds in its small, private home care unit and has been recording up to six to 10 sick birds coming in daily.

A deceased brown pelican found at El Capitan Beach on Friday, February 19.
Lisa Conti

Statewide, the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) facility in San Pedro has more than 200 sick and injured pelicans under its care, and the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center in Cordelia reports that it has at least another hundred.

As rescue centers become increasingly inundated with sick pelicans, concern is rising for the survival of the species. “As someone who has been rehabilitating marine birds for more than 40 years in California, I must say that I have never seen anything like this that has lasted this long,” said IBRRC Director Jay Holcomb. Veterinarians, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation groups, Sea World, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and numerous others have been gathering all of their resources and information in order to unravel the mystery.

Pelicans coming into the facilities have been described as thin, weak, and sick. Some, especially in Southern California, have been reported as having fouling feathers, a condition in which the insulation properties of the birds’ feathers malfunction, allowing the feathers to separate and exposing the skin to the frigid temperatures of the ocean water, and therefore many birds are also suffering from hypothermia.

Julia Parker, Director of Animal Affaris, and Sam Bankston, Animal Care Assistant, weigh a rescued brown pelican at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network.

Experts across California are conducting laboratory analyses of the seabirds’ feathers and skin and are also conducting necropsies of the deceased pelicans. The California Department of Fish and Game’s Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz has performed necropsies on 12 adult pelicans in various conditions. These researchers have found innkeeper worm parts in the intestines of the wildlife, as well as squid—unusual food prey for the pelicans indicating a possible problem in finding their usual prey of sardines and anchovies.

The pelicans were noted to have stayed longer in Oregon this season. The El Nino season and strong storm and weather patterns could be contributors to illnesses, as there has been extreme urban runoff in most areas of the West Coast, as well as an odd influx of prey patterns in certain areas. “We don’t know what’s causing this yet, but we’ve sent feather samples to various laboratories for analysis,” said veterinarian Melissa Miller of Santa Cruz. “It always helps to have multiple sets of eyes looking at things from a pathology perspective.”

Experts across the environmental spectrum are consistently banding and releasing the rehabilitated pelicans to keep track of the population.

People are asked to report any distressed or dead pelicans in this county to the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network on their Helpline at: (805) 681-1080. In other areas please call 866-WILD-911. The public is advised not to touch or even approach pelicans that are sick, injured, or entangled, as by instinct they are aggressive in defending themselves and may injure people who come to close to them.

The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network is currently caring for over 40 of the seabirds in its small, private home care unit.

The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network is a nonprofit organization that operates primarily from a private rehabilitation pond at a local certified residence, and is asking for assistance. “The influx of extra pelicans has been hard to accommodate in this residence,” said Julia Parker, director of animal affairs. “Twenty birds have been shipped to other rehabilitation centers to keep capacity at a functioning amount.” It takes $1,000 to feed the pelicans during their two-week average stay at the facility, and even transporting this amount of food to the private residence has become difficult: In addition to monetary donations and volunteer workers to help during this crisis, the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network is in search of a large upright freezer so it can cut fish transport expenses. “We are currently building a larger rehabilitation center at the end of Fairview in Goleta so we can accommodate more wildlife,” Parker said, “but it will take $250,000 more to make this happen.”

To get involved or make a donation please see Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network’s Web site or call (805) 681- 1080. You can track the brown pelicans’ plight and progress at the California Department of Fish and Game Web site.


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