DFG Investigating Cause of Brown Pelican Deaths

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Posted by DFG on February 16, 2010 at 14:10:00:

California Department of Fish and Game News Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - February 11, 2010

Esther Burkett, Wildlife Biologist, (916) 445-3764
Dana Michaels, Information Officer, (916) 322-2420

DFG Investigating Cause of Brown Pelican Deaths

The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) is collaborating with other wildlife experts to investigate a brown pelican crisis all along the California coastline. Since mid-January, hundreds of the seabirds have been coming ashore in a variety of conditions, from merely confused to dead. Veterinarians, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation groups, Sea World, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others are pooling their resources to determine the cause of these popular birds' distress.

Wildlife rescue centers from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego are collecting the live pelicans and saving as many as possible. The International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) facility in San Pedro has more than 200 sick and injured pelicans in-house. IBRRCs San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center in Cordelia has received more than 100 pelicans, and more are brought in each day.

Many of the pelicans are wet, meaning that their feathers' insulating properties have been compromised and their feathers have parted, exposing their skin to the cold ocean water and winter weather. Thus, in addition to whatever has made them ill or disoriented, they are also suffering from hypothermia. None of the pelicans received from the Monterey Bay area thus far had significant feather fouling, but some pelicans in southern California did, and the severe winter storms and resultant urban run-off may be a factor.

"We don't know what's causing this yet, but we've sent feather samples to various laboratories for analysis. It always helps to have multiple sets of eyes looking at things from a pathology perspective," said DFG Wildlife Veterinarian Melissa Miller, in Santa Cruz. Results of various tissue and organ analyses are not yet available to help determine the cause of the die-off. The El Niņo condition in the marine environment may be a factor.

DFG's Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz has performed necropsies on 12 pelicans. Most of these were adults in breeding plumage that ranged from thin to good nutritional condition. Three of the dead pelicans had innkeeper worm parts in their intestines, and a few had what appeared to be seal or sea lion bite wounds on the breast, neck or back, with secondary bacterial infections. The necropsies have found that pelicans are eating unusual prey items, which is indicative that they are having trouble finding or accessing their normal prey of anchovies and sardines.

IBRRC is feeding the captured birds with more than 1,000 lbs. of fish per day between its two centers. Unfortunately, the IBRRC is running out of money. Because of the state's enormous budget deficit, DFG has no funds to contribute but has sent biologists to assist IBRRC staff with pelican care in Cordelia, and DFG volunteers in southern California are assessing the number of dead pelicans on beaches. Anyone who wishes to help with care of the pelicans can make donations online at www.ibrrc.org. Donations are tax-deductible.

"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. "There seems to be no end to this."

The staff are banding and releasing rehabilitated pelicans as quickly as possible. Rehabilitated pelicans have blue-colored bands with identifying numbers to help track their survival in the wild.

Anyone who sees pelicans that appear to be sick or injured, or entangled with fishing line should not touch or approach them. Injured wildlife will instinctively defend themselves and may injure someone trying to help them. To report pelicans in distress, the public can phone either 800-39-WHALE in Los Angeles County or 866-WILD-911 elsewhere. The latter number is also good for reporting dead marine birds.

DFG is also advising the public not to feed the pelicans though some may appear to be begging or very weak. Feeding can lead to habituation to humans, and that can lead to conflicts in the future, such as entanglement in fishing line on or near piers. Improper feeding could also cause damage to the pelicans throat pouch or worsen their sickness. Though it is difficult to observe the pelicans in distress, it is a normal process for some to die in winter due to natural causes. Natural mortality is the inevitable consequence of the constant balancing between animal populations and shifting supplies of needed resources.

California brown pelicans were removed from both the state and federal endangered species lists in 2009.

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