Formerly endangered brown pelicans struggle to survive
By Chuck Graham 02/11/2010
Two months after being removed from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Service species list, California brown pelicans already find themselves in trouble again. The pesticide DDT isn’t the culprit this time around, and it remains a mystery as to why the seafaring birds are starving to death all along the Pacific coastline.
“We’re staying abreast of the situation,” said Lois Grunwald, spokesperson for the service in Ventura County. “We’ll continue to monitor them throughout this episode.”
Seabird rescuers such as Julia Parker of the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network suspect that the warmer ocean currents generated by El Niño, storms culminating with heavy runoff out of creeks and rivers, are the strongest possibility. Another theory is that there’s more competition for food, such as with the Humboldt squid that have migrated farther north from South America, also due to warmer currents.
“No one is sure what’s causing the trauma,” said Parker, “but El Niño, warmer ocean temps and food sources moving away are suspected.”
Parker said she started getting malnourished, dehydrated pelicans in early January, right when the first big El Niño blast arrived. Since then, the S.B. Wildlife Care Network has rescued 150 to 200 pelicans, and it has been getting six to 10 pelicans a day over the last couple of weeks. Approximately 15 to 20 of those birds have come from Ventura County beaches. Pelicans aren’t the only seabirds suffering from this mystery malaise. Small numbers of cormorants and grebes are also experiencing the same symptoms.
“Something in the water is making them lose their protective natural waterproofing on their feathers,” explained Parker. “That means they can’t dive into the water without getting cold, weak and then hungry.”
The Santa Barbara nonprofit network is the only one of its kind between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, and has been around since 1988. Volunteers from the tri-counties are transporting listless seabirds to the increasingly overcrowded Santa Barbara facility. Once there, if the pelicans can make it through the first three to five days of rehabilitation, they stand a good chance of surviving, and of eventually being released back into the wild.
First, the birds are warmed up and hydrated. Many are so weak that they can’t eat or drink on their own. Parker said they whip up a sort of fish smoothie, full of protein, and then feed the birds by hand with a tube. Currently, the rescue facility is going through 160 pounds of fish per day with 40 to 50 pelicans at one time.
If you find a sick pelican or other seabird along the coast, or if you’d like to volunteer, call the network at 681-1080. To make a donation, send it to Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, P.O. Box 6594, Santa Barbara, CA, 93160. The Web site is www.sbwcn.org.