A surge in sick and dying brown pelicans being brought into wildlife rehabilitation centers along the Southern California coast is baffling biologists.
As of Thursday, there were 32 pelicans being treated at the International Bird Rescue facility in San Pedro.
“Pelicans tell us what’s going on in the environment and we know something’s going on,” said Kylie Clatterbuck, wildlife center manager. “We don’t know if it’s a fish population issue.”
In some cases, the odd behavior characteristic of the sick and disoriented birds in the past three weeks has garnered media attention. When two pelicans collided over a Pepperdine University graduation ceremony in Malibu, photos made the rounds on social media sites.
Others have been spotted in backyards and at Los Angeles International Airport.
The birds coming into rehab centers are significantly underweight and some are anemic.
Pelicans feed on sardines and anchovies. While juvenile pelicans aren’t unusual visitors to rehab, scientists said, this year’s patients differ in that they’re older birds that would typically not be having trouble finding food sources.
A few of the birds have been dead by the time they reach the wildlife hospital, Clatterbuck said, while some others have died soon after. Test results still pending on those carcasses may provide more answers in time, she said.
The pelicans are coming in emaciated and cold, said Devin Hanson, a rehabilitation technician at the San Pedro center. The numbers have doubled in just a few days.
On Thursday, she performed an exam on Case No. 499, a young pelican brought in from Malibu that was recovering well.
“He’s our best feeder. He’s been self-feeding and his temperature is over what we’d expect,” Hanson said as the towel-wrapped bird was placed on the exam table.
The short exam — less than five minutes to reduce stress to the animal — includes a wing check for any injuries that may have been missed at intake.
Case No. 499 was doing well and ready Thursday to be moved to a secondary room.
Initially, the pelicans are brought in and kept in a warm room for their initial rehabilitation, then they’re moved to a cooler room as they recover.
Once the pelicans are self-feeding and their temperatures stabilize, they’re monitored in the outdoor aviary before being released to the wild.
“It’s normal for us to receive baby pelicans who have just recently fledged their next,” Clatterbuck said. “What is unusual is that we are seeing many second-year pelicans coming in to care.”
In the aviary on Thursday, nine pelicans in their final stage of rehabilitation looked calm as they languished in and above the cool pools provided.
With a wing span of about six feet, brown pelicans are a familiar site along the coastline. They have not been off the endangered species list for long. So, wildlife caretakers are keeping a close watch on how the birds are doing.
Pelicans, in general, are pretty resilient, however.
“Pelicans can come back” from very serious conditions, Clatterbuck said.
All of the pelicans released from the San Pedro center receive blue bands so caretakers can keep track of their history should the wind up back in treatment.
The sick pelicans often come too close to people, appear too far inland (one was found in Pasadena) or act disoriented.
Members of the public who think a bird needs help can call either Los Angeles Animal Control or the International Bird Rescue center at 310-514-2573.
Members of the public also can donate to the work. Pelicans eat about 6 pounds of fish a day which can ramp up the costs of treatment.