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Environment & Science

Brown Pelicans are starving along California's coast. Is that bad?

The California Brown Pelican is a State and Federally listed endangered species protected in both California and the United States.
The California Brown Pelican is a State and Federally listed endangered species protected in both California and the United States.

Fledgling California Brown Pelicans are turning up every day at aquatic bird rescue centers, says the group International Bird Rescue, and the rescue workers are worried. IBR runs two centers, one in San Francisco, one in Los Angeles, and are caring for about 150 of the pelicans, with more arriving every day. 

Do all Brown Pelicans need to be rescued? That's not necessarily an easy call. Pelicans need to learn to fish for themselves to thrive in the wild, after all; at times, various groups have pointed out that some Brown Pelicans do die. 

A spokeswoman for a Moss Landing-based nonprofit, WildRescue, told a local wire service"[i]t's certainly upsetting to see a starving baby pelican on the beach, but are we doing the species a disservice if we take in all the weak ones?"

Julie Skoglund manages the Los Angeles Center for International Bird Rescue. “While mortality of fledgling pelicans is a normal occurrence, what is not normal is for people to be seeing these birds dying in parking lots, on public piers and on beaches,” she says, in a written statement. 

On its blog, WildRescue explains that it still considers this a normal die-off event: 

Until now, we did not believe there was a shortage of food for them, but there is, at least in the Monterey Bay. 

Yesterday, we spoke with a seafood supplier in Moss Landing, who told us there was a shortage of baitfish in local waters. He said there hasn’t been any volume of Northern anchovy or Pacific sardine in the waters since February. There is, however, a very unusual abundance of krill. 

Interestingly, even with the disappearance of the pelican’s staple food, we are not seeing any starving adults. 

And International Bird Rescue maintains that the birds it already has rescued need continued support. It's been seeking local news coverage and financial help from the public. In San Francisco alone, they say, they're spending $700 per day on fish for the pelicans to eat. (The birds eat up to half again of their body weight every day.) 

“These birds do need to learn to fish for themselves, but if they are severely debilitated we would much rather the public reports them so they can be evaluated at a rehabilitation center," said Rebecca Duerr, an International Bird Rescue veterinarian.

These two groups may have different strategies for helping the pelicans, but they do seem to agree on at least one thing. They both say that people who spot baby Brown Pelicans struggling, stranded, or hungry should call their local wildlife rescue or animal control office. (The California Council of Wildlife Rescuers has a directory.)