Once-endangered birds leave surplus young to starve

07/19/2012

What is good news for California’s once-endangered brown pelican population is bad news to the thousands of young, starving birds dropping from the sky into streets, beaches or backyards near you.

This month, record numbers of emaciated juveniles have been reported along the coast, from San Diego to Eureka and beyond, threatening to overwhelm rescue centers—and Point Reyes is no exception.

“This is actually what’s known as a natural mortality event,” Megan Berry, a spokesperson for International Bird Rescue, said. “When a population is thriving and there is a big surplus, thousands of baby animals will die off from lack of food. It’s hard to watch, but it’s actually a positive sign for the species as a whole.”

The brown pelican was classified as an endangered species in the 1970s, after exposure to pesticides like DDT and dieldrin winnowed down their numbers. Now, populations of the iconic California bird are thriving.

Wildcare of San Rafael said that more than 39 young pelicans have been brought in from Stinson, Bolinas, Muir Beach and other spots since July 1, and an emaciated juvenile was spotted last week wandering in a parking lot in downtown Inverness. The hungry youngsters are turning up in streets, yards and shopping centers throughout Marin, weak, confused and easy to approach.

Once pelican parents stop feeding their young, fledglings must learn to hunt for themselves in a very short period of time—and they aren’t initially successful, especially with too many surviving chicks.

“[They] grow desperately hungry,” Ms. Berry said.  “Many exhibit unusual behavior like begging humans for food or foraging in unlikely locations far from the ocean, as we are seeing now.”

But while these beggars may be part of a natural phenomena, many people—including Wildcare staff—don’t feel right just standing by.

“People have been spotting them all over, and usually what happens is they’ll have the [Marin Humane Society] bring them in to us,” Melanie Piazza, director of animal care, said. “We have about seven right now. Usually their blood work is very poor, but we offer them fish and help them recover.” Once their strength is up, the young birds are transferred up to the International Bird Rescue Center in Cordelia, where a 200-foot long “flying cage” readies the animals for release into the wild.

“While mortality of fledgling pelicans is a normal occurrence, what is not normal is for people to be seeing these birds dying in parking lots, on public piers and on beaches,” Julie Skoglund, manager of International Bird Rescue’s Los Angeles Center, said, explaining that the density of the event makes it more visible. “Because the birds are so sick and disoriented they end up in very strange places.”

“We would much rather the public reports them so they can be evaluated at a rehabilitation center and, if possible, be treated for their problems and given a second chance at making it on their own,” Rebecca Duerr, veterinarian for he organization, added.

To spot a bird in distress, look for a listless animal in a location where it wouldn’t normally be, and that doesn’t startle when approached. If the bird is on a beach, it’s best to wait a day before calling the humane society, Ms. Piazza said.