Something is killing our brown pelicans

by on January 8, 2009 · 3 comments

in Environment, San Diego

Sea bird experts up and down the West Coast are sounding the alarm about hundreds of California brown pelicans dying or becoming injured by bad weather or a mysterious malady. Reports of disoriented, malnourished and dead pelicans have come from Washington state to Baja California in recent weeks, said Rebecca Dmytryk of the nonprofit group Wild-Rescue in Monterey, which is tracking the phenomenon. “It’s really weird,” Dmytryk said yesterday. “When you are seeing the die-off of breeding adults, that is significant.”

SeaWorld in San Diego, like other bird-rescue facilities in Southern California, has been overrun with ailing pelicans. Since the start of December, the marine-themed park has taken in 37 brown pelicans for treatment at its Mission Bay facility – about seven times the normal number for this time of year. Its staff found some of the birds; residents brought in others from around the county. Many of the pelicans were discovered on beaches.

Avian experts at SeaWorld suspect the pelicans were blown off course or hurt by a recent series of storms that hit the coast. Rough seas also made it tough for the birds to catch fish, which may explain why many of them were gaunt. “The veterinarians haven’t seen anything in their blood” indicating some other condition or poisoning, said Christy Simeone, supervisor of birds at SeaWorld.

The California brown pelican is an endangered species. Its population crashed in the 1950s and 1960s due to pesticides in the food chain. Last February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the birds had recovered enough for it to start removing them from the Endangered Species Act list.

Yesterday, Simeone helped to release nine birds that had been nursed back to health with a diet of fish, water and vitamins. The pelicans underwent a quick physical before they were discharged. Then they eagerly flew away from their cages and settled on the placid waters of Mission Bay. While the birds enjoyed their freedom, avian experts continued assessing the sick and dead pelicans.

The International Bird Rescue Research Center in San Pedro received 10 injured pelicans on Saturday alone. The birds’ disorientation typically is linked to domoic acid, a nerve toxin produced by algae, said Jay Holcomb, the center’s executive director. However, he said, the birds don’t show other common symptoms of domoic acid poisoning.

An advisory issued by the center said many of the pelicans have been found on roads, in neighborhoods and in other urban areas. One reportedly struck a vehicle – an unusual misjudgement for birds that routinely fly along the surf with their wing tips just inches from the crashing waves. “We know something is going on; we’re just not sure what it is,” Holcomb said.

Mike Lee: (619) 542-4570;

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Molly January 8, 2009 at 8:30 pm

this is so sad. does anyone know of anywhere to take sick pelicans besides seaworld? (seaworld has not been an honest neighbor to the beach communities.)


avatar AnonNClairemont January 12, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Wildlife Refuge. What’s wrong with Seaworld?


avatar Molly January 13, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Don’t get me started about seaworld! they lied to the beach communities – including Clairemont – when they misrepresented the consequences of their then upcoming thrill ride, for one, before they built it. They came out to the various planning committees and said, no, there won’t be any high noise levels from the ride, and no, the structure won’t mar the skyline. Come down to Mission Bay and see and hear for yourself.


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