Cause of Dead Pelicans Baffles Calif. Rescuers

By Gordon Tokumatsu
|  Monday, Jan 26, 2009  |  Updated 1:18 PM PDT
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Pelicans rest at the International Bird Rescue and Research Center in San Pedro.

Pelicans rest at the International Bird Rescue and Research Center in San Pedro.

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Cause of Dead Pelicans Baffles Rescuers

Wildlife rescue organizations across California are investigating why an inordinate number of sick and deceased adult brown pelicans have been found along the coast.
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SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- They're turning up on roads, in backyards, beaches and marinas, say wildlife experts, starved and too exhausted to fly.

They're California brown pelicans, a species that once neared extinction a couple of decades ago. No one knows why so many of them have been found emaciated and dying, though -- dozens since December, from Long Beach to the central coast.

"They're just so thin and fatigued and weak," said Erica Lander of the International Bird Research and Rescue Center. "It's causing them to land in these unusual places."

The center is already playing host to 40 of the distinctive looking birds, all being nursed back to health for release at a future date. Blood tests and necropsies on those that didn't survive will hopefully determine why so many of the birds have been found in such a short amount of time.

"We're hoping to not only help the birds that are here in care, but to figure out what it is that's going on," said Lander.

On Monday afternoon, a pair of volunteers brought a very weak bird in for rehab in the center's heated cage room. They said the pelican had been found on a Santa Monica beach, but hardly put up a fight while being rescued.

"Usually, they're a lot more feisty than that," said volunteer Cynthia Hurley. "They're pretty mellow when they're coming in right now."

Center officials can only speculate as to the cause of the mysterious affliction. A pathogen could be involved, although those that are simply fed and re-hydrated tend to recover within days. An environmental cause? Perhaps, say experts, but nothing has been isolated as a cause so far.

For the state's fragile coastal environment, such mysteries raise alarming possibilities. If you find a bird, you can call the bird rescue center's hotline: 866-WILD-911. You can also find out more about the organization at www.ibrrc.org.

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