State seeks cause of pelican ills

The state Department of Fish and Game has joined the effort to find out what is sickening hundreds of brown pelicans in the state.

The department announced Friday that it is pooling its resources with many other agencies and groups to address the crisis that many are calling unprecedented.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 500 sick or dead pelicans have been found along the state’s coastline. Southern California is especially hard hit. A rescue facility in San Pedro is treating more than 200 ailing pelicans.

“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,” said Jay Holcomb, director of the San Pedro facility and another in Northern California. “There seems to be no end to this.”

Locally, the influx of sick pelicans to the Pacific Wildlife Care center in Morro Bay has begun to slacken, said Virginia Flaherty, a supervisor at the facility.

“We have 17 pelicans right now,” she said. “We got two more yesterday, but it’s starting to slow down.”

The large, pouched seabirds are being found weak and malnourished. Some are injured and others are hypothermic because their feathers have lost their insulating ability and chilly ocean water is reaching their skin.

“We don’t know what’s causing this yet, but we’ve sent feather samples to various laboratories for analysis,” said Melissa Miller, a state wildlife veterinarian in Santa Cruz.

Necropsies performed on 12 pelicans show them suffering from a variety of ailments. Unusual food items were found in their stomachs, indicating that the birds are not finding enough anchovies and sardines, their normal food.

The crisis may be caused by a combination of this year’s El Niño weather event and the recent storms, biologists say. El Niños interrupt the marine food chain, leaving the pelicans weak, only to be battered by storms and their polluted runoff.

The state’s budget crisis prevents the agency from helping rescue groups financially, but Fish and Game personnel will be assigned to help out in rescue centers in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.

Pacific Wildlife Care estimates that it costs $500 to rehabilitate one sick pelican. Anyone interested in helping should go to the organization’s Web page at www.pacificwildlifecare.org.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.