Mystery Ailment Killing Endangered Pelicans Hundreds of California Brown Pelicans from Baja to Washington state have been found dead or sick far from their coastal home. One pelican was found in New Mexico, wandering in the snow at an elevation of 7,000 feet.
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Mystery Ailment Killing Endangered Pelicans

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Mystery Ailment Killing Endangered Pelicans

Mystery Ailment Killing Endangered Pelicans

Mystery Ailment Killing Endangered Pelicans

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99421698/99482973" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Pelicans recover at the International Bird Rescue and Research Center in San Pedro, Calif. Cynthia Hurley For NPR hide caption

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Cynthia Hurley For NPR

Pelicans recover at the International Bird Rescue and Research Center in San Pedro, Calif.

Cynthia Hurley For NPR

Handler Neil Uelman checks out a recovering pelican at the rehabilitation center. Cynthia Hurley For NPR hide caption

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Cynthia Hurley For NPR

Handler Neil Uelman checks out a recovering pelican at the rehabilitation center.

Cynthia Hurley For NPR

Rehabilitation manager Julie King examines a bird at the center. Cynthia Hurley for NPR hide caption

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Cynthia Hurley for NPR

Rehabilitation manager Julie King examines a bird at the center.

Cynthia Hurley for NPR

In Depth

If you see a bird in distress, call the injured bird hotline: 1-866-WILD911

They're a familiar sight along the California coast — birds with 6-foot wingspans gliding in a V formation above the ocean. But something is happening to the California Brown Pelican. Hundreds are dying, and wildlife rescuers don't know why.

As volunteers Dave Weeshoff and Bob Beckler approach a small flock at a fishing pier in San Pedro — a popular hangout for the pelicans — most of the long-necked birds gently take to the air. Not all of them, though. Those are the ones Weeshoff and Beckler are looking for.

One pelican floats in the water looking distressed. Weeshoff drapes a small white sheet over the bird to calm it. As he picks up the pelican, it looks as though he's holding a small child in a Halloween ghost costume. He carefully folds the bird into a carrier.

"He's hungry," Weeshoff says. "He's skinny, no kidding. He ate a couple of pieces before I caught him; I don't think it's enough."

Symptoms Without A Cause

At the International Bird Rescue and Research Center in San Pedro, they've taken in more than 45 ailing pelicans in the past two weeks. Rehabilitation manager Julie King and her staff have been working around the clock trying to save them.

"The symptoms they've been coming in with are a general weakness," King says. "They've been starving, emaciated, dehydrated and a little bit disoriented."

In previous years, she says, the endangered pelicans have been plagued with domoic acid poisoning, a neurotoxin found in algae blooms. But that doesn't seem to be the primary cause of the current decline.

"Generally, birds that come in with domoic acid poisoning have some fairly severe neurological symptoms, which none of the birds are exhibiting — other than disorientation," King says.

Initial blood and tissue tests have shown trace amounts of domoic acid, but researchers believe it may be playing a secondary role to a larger problem. What that larger problem is, they don't yet know. Meanwhile, hundreds of birds from Baja to Washington state have been found dead or sick far from their coastal home. One pelican was found in New Mexico, wandering in the snow at an elevation of 7,000 feet.

Survival Is Hard Enough

The federal government wants to remove the bird from the endangered species list, but wildlife rescuers say that's a mistake. Even without a mysterious ailment, Weeshoff says, the majestic birds have a hard time surviving.

"Every day, we see fish hooks," he says. "Almost every day, we see gun shots, pellet guns, BB guns, that sort of thing. Monofilament fishing line. So there's just a lot of different pressures on these birds in terms of being able to survive out in the wild."

For now, the pelicans that are rehabilitating in the center's large aviary and water pool are the lucky ones. These birds, King says, are showing signs of improvement.

"That we'll actually be able to release the ones we have is definitely our biggest hope," King says. "Our main goal is always to do what we can for them as quickly as we can and [send] them back into the environment."