The crowd gathered around the pool was thicker than normal. The loafers nervously eyed each other, the strangers in their midst, and the metal bowl full of fish. Finally, one intrepid creature flapped his giant wings, jutted out his long beak and dug in.
In a normal summer, the pelican pen at the International Bird Rescue Center would house a couple dozen patients. But this summer, more than 90 starving brown pelicans have turned up on beaches, inland roads, and even at the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We’ve been getting lots of emaciated pelicans,” said Isabel Luevano of the Bird Rescue Center, which has key centers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Long Beach. “They seem to all be juvenile pelicans that have all hatched from this year’s breeding season.”
Inside the center’s massive pen, dozens of pelicans lounged around the pool, scarfing up about $800 worth of fish a day. The welcome sight of food belied ocean conditions that’s left many fighting to survive.
“Most of them are coming in cold, weak, emaciated -- basically starving,” Luevano said. “Not able to find enough food.”
While experts haven’t yet pinpointed the issue, they believe the starvation issue is either from a lack of fish in the pelicans’ feeding grounds, or evidence that the juvenile pelicans haven’t quite cracked the whole feeding thing yet.
Regardless, once in the center, the birds are weighed, examined and given blood tests. Much of the work is done by the center’s volunteers.
“A lot of these guys, they’re simply emaciated,” volunteer Jeff Robinson said. “So in a case like that we just try to feed them and get them back in good condition for release.”
Experts say the presence of so many brown pelicans could actually be good news for the species. Several years after being removed from the endangered list, their numbers have continued to climb, resulting in more competition for food.
Luevano said the large influx is similar to what the center saw last summer -- lending more credence for the theory the pelicans are rebounding.
“We could be seeing a natural die off of only just the strongest survive,” Luevano said.