.Starving brown pelicans strain wildlife rescue centers

On Friday, June 14, media and volunteers gathered at the small inlet of Horseshoe Bay of Fort Baker to watch as 27 brown pelicans were released back into the wild.

The inlet, on that sunny day with only a bit of wind and the towering stanchions of the Golden Gate Bridge unclouded by fog in the background, seemed the idyllic place for the bird release.

“It’s an iconic spot,” said Russ Curtis, the communications director of International Bird Rescue, who put on the media event. “But there’s also enough space here, and it’s far away from the public. And the public can often get in the way.”

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International Bird Rescue, the Bay Area-based bird rehabilitation center that focuses its efforts mainly on water birds, put on the event to showcase their efforts to help prevent a massive starvation event across the Bay Area and the greater California coast.

As the volunteers opened the cages in front of the water, each filled with two or three birds, the majestic pelicans took off, soaring into the sky, landing at the water in front of the dock.

JD Bergeron, executive director of IBR, said, “It never gets old for me. This is emotional.”

The release, also a means for the organization to ask for public donations to help the birds, was a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise alarming event for the brown pelicans in the area.

Since April, from Monterey to Sonoma County, brown pelicans have been found starving and malnourished along the coast and in places where they are rarely, if ever, seen. Hundreds of birds have been found and sent to bird and wildlife rescue centers across the region, and many more have died in the wild before caretakers could reach them.

This influx of starving birds has overwhelmed rescue center spaces and budgets. And while it seems that this starvation event is nearing its conclusion, researchers and conservationists are still uncertain as to why the birds were starving in the first place.

IBR, the area’s main caretaker of brown pelicans, said they first received calls about starving pelicans in late April. The situation started to increase, with many birds coming in so starved that they were nearly half their weight.

Reports of strangely acting birds appeared all over the Bay Area, but mainly around Santa Cruz, with one pelican walking into a bar. One viral video showed a brown pelican flying into the outfield at Oracle Park on a sunny day, disoriented and eventually flying out of the field. From April on, the starving birds were found, and the concern from rescue centers and researchers grew.

As of today, IBR has reported caring for 375 pelicans, with only 91 releases of healthy birds so far. What’s most significant, however, is that they are noticing many more adult birds. While these numbers seem high, important factors make this event significant beyond the numbers.

With many wild populations of birds, the young will often have a hard time learning to fish or fall ill from natural causes. However, a sign that there are greater issues around the population or the environment at large is that even adults are starting to suffer.

Since being inundated at their main facility in Fairfield, IBR began to mainly care for the birds.

“In this particular crisis, there’s a wide range of ages. So it’s not just baby pelicans or birds that are, you know, unfamiliar with fishing,” Curtis said. “The age of the birds is kind of all over the map. It’s a wide variety of first, second, third and fourth year birds.”

Notably, Kirsten Lindquist, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientist working at the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, which stretches to the Marin and Sonoma coast, said that they found 25 emaciated birds in May in the region. Of those birds, almost half of them were adults.

As the situation has grown to require IBR’s increasingly intensive care of these birds, both in their space and in the cost, this has meant that they have been financially strained. According to the Wetlands Wildcare Center in southern California, it costs $45 a day to feed these birds, some of whom will stay in their care for nearly five weeks. The cost is similar for IBR as well. Currently, they are taking care of nearly 200 pelicans. That’s nearly $9,000 every day.

Because of this strain, IBR hasn’t been able to help care for as many other species of birds as they otherwise would have. This has put additional strain on wildlife centers in the region.

The Sonoma Bird Rescue Center, based in Petaluma, is one such place. While only receiving two starving adult pelicans related to this event, both of whom sadly passed away the same day they were brought into care, the pelican starvation event has strained the center in other ways.

As one of the region’s main care facilities for birds, SBRC is comfortable providing care for any bird species. However, because IBR is so close, SBRC often receives hurt or sick water birds and gives them to IBR for better care. However, SBRC has had to care for more water birds because IBR facilities have been so full.

“With them [IBR] being inundated, we’ve actually had to kind of turn around ourselves and provide additional care and time for patients that normally would have been transferred,” said SBRC executive director Ashton Kluttz. “That includes, for us, receiving about 200 herons and egrets from West 9th Street rookery in downtown Santa Rosa.”

The 9th Street rookery is a line of trees in downtown Santa Rosa where many herons and egrets make their nests. While this event has strained the birds and the facilities that care for them, this seems to be slowing.

“We’re still getting a trickle of them in, but it’s slowed down,” Curtis said. “We’ll probably continue to see some birds in the next couple weeks, but not as frequently as April.”

Many are curious why this event happened in the first place. Some initially thought it was possibly related to disease or some chemical in the water, but that was quickly dismissed. Everyone the Bohemian spoke with pointed to climate-related events and access to their food.

As Mike Parker, executive director of the California Institute for Environmental Studies, explained, this could be due to several factors.

“It seems to be that there were these weather events, and maybe even water temperature or other variables in the water column are a factor,” Parker said.

The weather event Parker referred to was a long stretch of heavy rains across southern California in late March. Due to brown pelican nesting in that area, Parker supposed that must have been a part of what caused this event.

Parker noted that some cormorants, who also dive for fish, were showing signs of starvation, indicating a greater possibility that this was a weather and climate-related event. However, he and others pointed to the rising water temperatures brought on by climate change and how this might be affecting where pelicans’ food might be.

Northern anchovies, the main diet of brown pelicans, are supposedly doing fine, according to NOAA fisheries numbers.

Due to storm events, heavy winds at sea and warmer water temperatures, northern anchovies might be diving much deeper to seek cooler water and avoid roiling surface waters, making it harder for pelicans to find the fish out at sea. Once again, this points to climatic factors because adult and mature pelicans are having trouble finding food.

As Lindquist, the NOAA scientist, mentioned, “This is the second largest mortality event of brown pelicans in 30 years,” making it a great concern for researchers and rescue facilities going forward.

However, Curtis pointed out that it’s very soon to claim anything as the de facto reason for this event.

“It’s still too early to even make grand pronouncements because science just doesn’t work that quickly. There are lots of things that they need to study. And they also need to look at the number of birds that came out of some of their roosting areas, especially in the Channel Islands, and even further down to Mexico,” Curtis said.

Unfortunately, brown pelicans are familiar with these kinds of strains. As a part of both the IBR and the Wetlands Wildcare Center logos, brown pelicans have been the poster child of caring for the California coastline, mostly because of our own damage to the species.

Since the 1800s, human activities have threatened the birds. Originally caught and killed for their feathers, for down and for hats, they were eventually killed on the spot by fishermen. As they feared they were eating too many northern anchovies, the fishing vessels saw them as a threat.

Then, due to the notorious pesticide DDT, their eggs began to grow thin, killing off future generations of the bird. In 1970, three years before the Endangered Species Act passed, brown pelicans were federally protected. As DDT was banned in 1972, their populations slowly began to soar back, with the federal government eventually delisting the bird in 2009.

However, since then, they have faced many troubling events.

In fact, in 2022, a similar starvation event occurred. Parker pointed out that back then, there were many high wind events, and many of the birds going to rescue centers were juveniles, which to him and others seemed less of a concern, pointing to bird inexperience of fishing rather than some greater environmental event.

While there is still much for researchers to discover about this event, the determination of those involved, from researchers across the West Coast, means there will always be hope for the birds. As researchers look into this mysterious and worrying starvation event and rescue centers work almost tirelessly to help save the birds, there is always room for them to bounce back.

At the Horseshoe Bay pier, the 27 brown pelicans flapped their wings as small droplets shining in the sun burst from the water.

“They’re getting their sea wings back,” Curtis said as we watched them return to the bay.

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