More than 260 ailing pelicans were taken in by the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network for treatment and rehabilitation. | Credit: Emma Spencer

The solution of any mystery invariably begets new riddles; such is the case with the mystery of the starving brown pelicans in which starvation, it turns out, has been determined to be the culprit that claimed the lives of more than 200 of these acrobatic dive-bombers over the past two months off the coast of Southern California. What makes this more mystifying still is the fact that anchovies — on which brown pelicans feed — have been found in great abundance in coastal waters.

This is the official finding of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that’s spent the better part of two months trying to figure out what’s caused more than 700 of these once endangered birds to wash up on shore so emaciated that they lack the ability to maintain their capacity for waterproofing, without which they’d die of hypothermia.

State biologists determined that domoic acid — associated with red tides — was not to blame, nor was any variant of the avian flu.

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“The cause of this stranding event was determined to be starvation,” the department declared in a June 24 press statement.

As to why the pelicans failed to avail themselves of the anchovies lying in such obvious abundance off the coastal waters, the department speculated it might be the “prolonged period of unusually strong winds in late April and early May” that interfered with the birds’ ability to forage. Department biologists also speculated that larger-than-average pelican populations this year might have played a role. The department is still investigating.

To date, Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network has taken in 280 Brown pelicans in a state of evident distress. Of those, 40 percent died; 61 were locally released, and seven remain; the rest were transferred to other facilities down the coast. Statewide, it’s estimated that 200 of the 700 pelicans taken in by various rehab centers up and down the coast perished.

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