Hundreds of Starving Brown Pelicans Are Turning Up on California Beaches, Puzzling Wildlife Rescuers and Scientists

By all available accounts, there isn’t a lack of ocean forage

Hospital manager Teal Helms (R) and volunteer Gali Begim perform intake on a sick brown pelican patient at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center
Teal Helms (right) and volunteer Gali Begim (left) perform intake assesments on a brown pelican at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, California. Mario Tama via Getty Images

Several hundred starving, sick or injured brown pelicans have turned up on beaches throughout California over the past few weeks, with wildlife officials still unable to pinpoint the cause of what they are calling a “crisis.”

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other non-governmental partners, have been working to collect and rehabilitate the birds, many of which are anemic, dehydrated and underweight.

“They’re in really poor physical shape. They’re starving, and they haven’t gotten enough nutrition,” Russ Curtis, a spokesperson for the nonprofit organization International Bird Rescue, which is helping in the rescue efforts, tells KQED’s Annelise Finney.

“When there’s not the fishing stock that they can find, they take chances around fishing piers and fishing boats and places where there are people with fishing tackle,” Curtis says, explaining that some pelicans have been hurt by fishing hooks and lines they encounter near the shore.

A California brown pelican eats fish from a blue kiddie pool, with a half dozen brown pelicans in the background
More than 100 brown pelicans are recovering at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, California.  Mario Tama via Getty Images

As of this week, the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center (WWCC) in Huntington Beach and Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network have admitted more than 100 pelicans each, while International Bird Rescue has taken 260 pelicans into its two California facilities—one in Los Angeles County, and one in the San Francisco Bay Area, reports Cheri Carlson of the Ventura County Star.

Other birds have been found dead on beaches. Necropsies have revealed starvation as their cause of death, which has puzzled scientists. Populations of fish that pelican forage, by all accounts, remain abundant off the Pacific coast.

“We also know that there’s supposedly plenty of anchovies and their food out there in the ocean, so we don’t really know why they are not able to forage yet,” Debbie McGuire, executive director of the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center, tells Eugene Garcia of the Associated Press.

Brown pelicans are known to spend their non-breeding months throughout the entirety of the state’s coastline, and the sick birds have been found in a variety of locations. In northern California, most birds have been rescued around Monterey and Santa Cruz, while those in southern California have been found by officials in a variety of traditional and non-traditional habitats. Two dozen pelicans were found on Newport Beach and dozens more were picked up around Huntington Beach—but sick birds have also been identified in a lake at SoFi stadium, the home of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, and at a Malibu fire station, the Guardian’s Dani Anguiano reports.

In rescue efforts, the first step is to support the birds with warmth. “The great news is the vast majority are recovering if we can get them through those first couple of critical hours of hypothermia,” Elizabeth Wood, the WWCC’s veterinarian and medical director, says in a video posted to Facebook.
Scores of starving and sick pelicans found along California coast

But with a sudden influx of in-patient birds, wildlife rescue centers are facing increasingly steep bills. At WWCC, fish prices are reaching $45 per day, per bird, while International Bird Rescue is spending about $1,000 each day on 500 pounds of food.

This isn’t the first time California’s brown pelican populations have experienced health emergencies. In the spring of 2022, nearly 800 birds were admitted to wildlife rescue centers, according to a CDFW news release. Of those, 394 birds were successfully returned to the wild. No specific cause was pinpointed that year either, but some scientists believed that weather conditions made food scarce.

For California beachgoers, officials ask that people give pelicans plenty of space and keep a keen eye out for any strange or erratic pelican behavior. The species was removed from the federal Endangered Species list in 2009.

“...If you see something, say something,” Curtis tells KQED. “Let your local animal control know that there’s a bird in distress, and let’s get it into care as soon as we can.”

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