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Pelicans nursed in Cayucos back yard
By Nathan Welton
The Tribune
July 22, 2004


An alarming number of endangered brown pelicans have stranded themselves on beaches along the Central Coast and around California during the past month, and many have died, wildlife experts say.

The birds all appear to be starving and emaciated.

"They're basically too weak to move, they stop grooming, they become very weak and then they get cold," Dani Nicholson, a member of the local nonprofit Pacific Wildlife Care, said Wednesday.

Eight surviving juvenile pelicans are now using her Cayucos home as a rehabilitation center, and her organization has taken in 22 of the animals so far. Fourteen have lived.

Although they're not positive, scientists have laid blame for the starvation on low food supplies -- due possibly to either overfishing or fewer baitfish -- and a strong breeding season this year.
Experts also say the starvations appear to be part of a statewide trend.

Sea World in San Diego has treated 130 emaciated pelicans, while the San Pedro-based International Bird Rescue Research Center reports having about 30 in its care.

"It's hard to say but (the number stranded around California) is definitely in the hundreds," said the center's spokeswoman Karen Benzel. "There are vast stretches of beach in Southern California where there might not be people seeing the birds -- and then there are the Channel Islands."

A similar situation happened about three years ago, according to center director Jay Holcomb.

Pelicans are not unusual wildlife rescue patients, but they're in rehabilitation for an atypical reason this year.

Nicholson, whose home serves as the organization's main sea bird rehabilitation site, said she normally cares for physically injured birds, not starving ones.

Last year she saw just one pelican, down from six the year before -- and all of those were wounded.

When beachgoers spot a downed pelican this year, they're being asked to phone a local hotline to summon volunteer rescuers who will transport it to Nicholson's house.

The animals typically suffer from exhaustion and low body temperatures, so Nicholson warms them up and administers fluids containing electrolytes and vitamins.

When they've sufficiently recovered, she'll feed them fish, of which her eight birds collectively eat 30-40 pounds a day.

Nicholson said she's about to use up a baitfish donation from the Morro Bay Aquarium, and she'll soon resort to a $50 per-day fish diet from a local vendor.

When the birds have fully recovered - after two to three weeks - volunteers then release them.
Because the animals are mostly young, scientists believe they're inexperienced at foraging and quicker to make mistakes.

And there are many birds now competing for what could be a limited food supply.

"The reality is there's a high mortality rate in the first year because that's the way nature does it," said Holcomb.

This season's pelican breeding on west Anacapa Island began in early November and continued through June in what experts say might become one of the most productive on record on the island. It was also only the second breeding season to begin before January in the last 35 years.
Biologists have seen additional breeding success in parts of Baja California, particularly in the Gulf of California and around Islas Todos Santos.

The young birds have increased in number and have been spotted begging around piers and wharves, unwilling or unable to catch their own food.

"When we returned to Ensenada from Islas Todos Santos last week, we witnessed about 85 young-of-the-year pelicans literally marauding in a pack on the plaza adjacent to the harbor," wrote Frank Gress, of the California Institute of Environmental Studies, in a letter to wildlife experts.

"Vendors doling out anchovies were getting mobbed by this band of young pelicans; the pack surged from vendor to vendor and as it pushed through the crowd of people there, it became somewhat menacing," he added.

Gress described the pack becoming so aggressive that a vendor tried unsuccessfully to disperse it with a high pressure hose.

"This scene, to say the least, was very bizarre," Gress wrote.

Large amounts of food early in the season helped trigger copious breeding rates. But for unknown reasons, baitfish supplies have declined.

"The lack of food -- mostly anchovies, but also sardines when available -- appears to be the cause of the mortality reported," Gress wrote. "For some reason food supplies have recently become scarce."

Some have suggested rising ocean temperatures have caused the fish to reside in cooler water too deep for the birds, while others have blamed the decline on overfishing.

Pacific Wildlife Care estimates it costs about $150 to rehabilitate a pelican, and is soliciting adopt-a-pelican donations. Rescue organizations in other areas are estimating the cost at around $200.

Scores of other brown pelicans reportedly crash landed this month in Arizona, apparently confusing shimmering roadways and parking lots with water. They're now being shipped back to California for treatment.

California's brown pelicans nearly went extinct in the 1960s when the chemical DDT built up in their bodies. That caused thin egg shells, leading their eggs to break.

The federal government listed the bird as an endangered species in 1970 when just 200-300 breeding pairs remained; that number has since swelled to around 6,000.