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article imageLarge California Brown Pelican die-off worries officials

By Stephanie Dearing     Feb 15, 2010 in Environment
Approximately 1,000 California Brown Pelicans have been found dead, washed up to shore, and bird rescue centers have been swamped with hundred of Brown Pelicans to care for.
California - The birds, say marine biologists, have some sort of substance on them which appears to be causing the feathers to lose insulation value, resulting in cold and even hypothermic birds. Living birds have been reported to be disoriented and hungry. The birds have been washing up on United States shores from southern California to southern Oregon since mid-January, many of them already dead. The California Fish and Game Department announced Friday it would join in a collaborative effort by a number of organizations investigating the unexplained deaths. Bird rehabilitation organizations have been taking the live birds into their care, and say they have been swamped. Jay Holcomb, speaking for International Bird Rescue Research Center told press “As someone who has been rehabilitating marine birds for more than 40 years in California, I must say I have never seen anything like this that has lasted this long. There seems to be no end to this.”
Preliminary necropsy results show starvation has been a factor in the deaths. It is believed that there are a combination of factors that have worked to impact on the pelicans, although pelicans have not been the only birds affected. The pelicans have, however, been the bird species most affected. El Nino is thought to be the greatest contributor, driving the pelican's food sources into deeper than normal waters; causing more winter storms. It is thought that toxic run-off somehow contributes to the weather. Karen Benzel, a Californian who has been working to save pelicans the Carmel area of California told press "I'm guessing it's a perfect storm, a trifecta, of the storms, polluted runoff from the rains and lack of food." Scientists have not ruled out an algae bloom as a contributing factor.
Sick and distressed Brown Pelicans have been reported all along the Unites States Pacific coast up to Oregon, where officials advised residents to not feed the starving birds. The Project Leader from the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex told press "In one parking lot, there were people in cars surrounded by pelicans asking for food. We have never seen that before. These birds literally have lost all fear of humans."
This isn't the first time the species has suffered from a mass die-off. In 2006 the die-off was attributed to an over sized population and subsequent starvation. Usually the younger birds suffer more from starvation, but some reports say mature adult pelicans are dying this winter.
The species is the only diving pelican. They feed on sardines, mackerel and anchovies. The California Brown Pelican was decimated by DDT back in the 1970s. Declared endangered, efforts to save the bird were successful, and the California Brown Pelican was removed from the endangered species list last year.
Toxic runoff in California comes from farms, industry and municipal runoff, as well as soil erosion. Pollutants range from pieces of garbage to chemical pollutants and pathogens. Toxic runoff in California has been an issue of concern for years.
After living rescued pelicans have been cleaned and fed and have been restored to health, they are released back into the wild.
More about California brown pelican, International bird rescue, California fish game department, Toxic runoff, Sewage contamination
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