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After mysterious mass sickness, a dozen brown pelicans released into the wild

The pelicans were ill – starved, dehydrated and in dire need of help.

It’s still a mystery why hundreds of California brown pelicans became ill last month, stranding on sands along the Southern California coastline and some even found farther inland – but for a dozen of the birds, their rebound back to health marked a moment of hope for the struggling species.



The Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center released the rehabbed dozen off Corona del Mar on Friday, June 17, a crowd on the beach cheering as they were released from cages and flew out over the ocean.

While the afternoon was a milestone, there was also worry the rehabbed pelicans could end up coming back again, in need of more help.

“We are releasing them with uncertain reason of what brought them in,” said Debbie McGuire, executive director for the Huntington Beach-based care center. “If it’s a fish stock problem, they may re-strand and boomerang back in.”

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, sickness among the birds started spiking mid-May, when several wildlife rehabilitation facilities from San Luis Obispo County south to San Diego County started admitting hundreds of California brown pelicans, a protected species in the state.

Many had the same symptoms of sickness: emaciated, dehydrated, critically low body temperatures. Some had parasites or secondary injuries, such as broken wings. Dozens died before they could be nurtured back to health.

Fish and Wildlife is conducting postmortem examinations and has been testing pelicans that have been brought into rehabilitation facilities.

Results indicate that pelicans are succumbing to starvation-related problems. Currently, there are no indications of disease or unusual parasites and Fish and Wildlife officials have been unable to pinpoint an underlying cause.

In total, about 700 pelicans were taken into various rehab organizations for treatment across the region, according to Tim Daly, a public information officer for the agency.

At least 200 died or were euthanized at facilities and an estimated 80 birds were found dead even before taken to care centers – thought those figures may be an underestimated because not all deaths are reported, Daly noted.

Fish and Wildlife tested 21 dead birds, none were positive for avian flu or domoic acid, a natural toxin related to algae levels.

“Starvation is still believed to be the cause of the health problems – we don’t know yet what’s caused the starvation,” Daly said.

About 70 birds were taken in by Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center at the Bolsa Chica wetlands. About two dozen died in the first hour or two.

McGuire is hoping more pelicans will be healthy enough to release in coming weeks.

The ones released on Friday were banded with the help of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, so any that start to struggle on the shoreline can be identified – part of trying to piece together the mysterious illness plaguing the pelicans.

“If they come in with the same conditions, in two or three weeks, we still have something going on out there,” McGuire said.

She has a theory on why the pelicans are starving, pointing to impacts of global warming as a possible culprit.

“My gut is that it’s global warming,” she said. “The warmer temperatures are driving bait fish too low.”

Typically, brown pelicans will search the sea from 60 feet above the water, see a ball of bait fish and dive down about 6 feet under the surface to snag their meal.

“If the bait fish are deeper, they can’t catch them,” she said. “If whales and dolphin are pushing big fish up to the surface, then they can catch them. If that’s not happening enough, they are not getting food.”

There have been fewer stranding reports recently and her hope is fish have moved closer to the sea’s surface.

Another possibility is that a thick red tide that lingered off Southern California last month may have impacted the bird’s feeding ability.

After more than three decades caring for coastal wildlife, McGuire is cautiously optimistic about the coast being clear for pelicans in coming weeks, but she said she isn’t going to put her guard down yet.

“I’m worried on a lot of levels,” she said. “It’s something I’m getting prepared for, just in case.”

Resources, however, are dwindling. The birds are nursed back to health with a mix of fluids, medication and fish. It takes about $45 per pelican, per day – and with 43 birds still needing care, there’s a need for help from the public, she said.

More information on how to help and what to do if you see an ailing bird:

Source: Orange County Register

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