Sick brown pelicans flood rescue groups in Southern California

The past week quickly became a blur of brown pelican rescues as wildlife rehabilitation centers were inundated with dozens of hungry and sick birds showing up along the southern California coast.

The problems seemed to arise first in Ventura County, according to Liz Holbrook, a longtime volunteer with the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. The group rescues and rehabilitates seabirds found in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Holbrook estimated that she received about 60 calls about California brown pelicans on Sunday alone.

“They’re starving. They’re in the wrong place. They’re landing on the highway,” she said Tuesday as she drove to rescue a pelican on the train tracks near Solimar, a seaside community north of Ventura.

The center said it had hosted more than 100 pelicans in the past five days, a number that has continued to rise. Some of those patients have been transferred to International Bird Rescue, which has rehabilitation centers in San Pedro and Fairfield, California.

After:Pelicans found sick and dying along the coast of Ventura, Santa Barbara

The organization reported 55 pelicans at its hospital in San Pedro on Monday. That’s up from three just six days ago. The hospital expected 15 to 20 more pelicans on Wednesday, veterinarian Rebecca Duerr said.

Typically, the organization treats 100 to 200 pelicans a year at its two sites, she said. In just one week, he had gotten 75 brown pelicans from one center.

“I’m quite worried because they’re coming quickly and I don’t know when it’s going to stop,” said Duerr, the organization’s director of research and veterinary science.

The patients were of varying ages, including babies and adults from the last year. The birds appeared hungry, cold and weak. Some also showed signs of trauma. A bird got stuck with a dozen hooks. A few others were hit by vehicles.

Duerr saw no signs of neurological or respiratory problems, saying it appeared to be a lack of food causing the birds to become emaciated and injured. Pelicans typically eat sardines, anchovies, and other small fish.

“Pelicans are smart birds,” Duerr said. “If it’s hard to catch fish there, I would expect them to do more risky foraging.”

The hospital has seen patients from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, Malibu and other west Los Angeles County beaches.

The California Wildlife Center, which rescues seabirds in the Malibu area, has taken in 28 brown pelicans so far in May. That’s up from no pelican rescues in May 2020 or May 2021.

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Rescue groups say they have recently been inundated with sick and injured brown pelicans found along the coast of Ventura County and southern California.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said rehabilitation centers have reported a mix of emaciated juvenile and adult birds with hooks and other injuries. The state plans to test some of the birds to try to determine what is going on.

After rehab, brown pelicans generally do well in the wild, according to Duerr. The organization is still receiving reports of sightings of pelicans treated and released after a mass stranding more than a decade ago.

Once threatened with extinction, the brown pelican was removed from the federal endangered species list in 2009.

Beginning in the 1960s, the pesticide DDT wreaked havoc on brown pelicans in the Channel Islands, as well as bald eagles and other birds. The contamination made the eggshells so thin that they broke apart in the nests. While DDT was banned in the 1970s, its effects on Southern California lasted for decades.

To report a bird in distress along Ventura and Santa Barbara beaches, call the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network at 805-681-1080.

Until a trained rescuer arrives, experts advise avoiding disturbing the bird. Don’t try to feed him or pick him up, they say, just let him be quiet.

Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Contact her at [email protected] or 805-437-0260.