Hundreds of birds starving, injured throughout California

California’s brown pelicans are suffering from a mysterious affliction that has landed more than 200 of them in wildlife rehabilitation centers in recent weeks, resulting in what wildlife officials are calling a major “pelican crisis.”

Since May 12, International Bird Rescue has taken in 192 emaciated or injured brown pelicans in Los Angeles, as well as another 15 struggling pelicans in its Fairfield location that came from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. It’s the greatest number of pelicans the nonprofit has worked to rescue at one time since 2012, when a similar crisis took place, said Russ Curtis, a spokesperson for IBR.

“We might get this time of year maybe a couple of pelicans a week,” Curtis said. “But this amount of pelicans so quickly, it’s really concerning.”

International Bird Rescue began receiving reports of injured or starving brown pelicans in Southern California earlier this month, and there were fears that whatever was causing the issues would soon manifest farther north as well. SPCA Monterey County’s Wildlife Rescue Center transported multiple pelicans in poor condition to the Bay Area last week for treatment, and wildlife officials are bracing for more injured pelicans along the Northern California coast soon, said Alison Hermance, a spokesperson for WildCare Wildlife Hospital in San Rafael .

“We’ve seen some slowing, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet,” Curtis said.

The birds are arriving in rehabilitation centers starving, ill and with a range of injuries, from fish hook snags to bone fractures. Some have been hit by vehicles; others are simply cold and hungry, officials said.

Determining a cause for the pelicans’ conditions has been difficult because the issue appears to be affecting pelicans of all ages in different ways, and the injured and hungry birds are coming from all over — even places far inland, including Greenfield, said Beth Brookhouser, a spokesperson for SPCA Monterey County.

The affliction, whose cause could take years of research and tracking to fully understand, could be the result of a combination of factors, Curtis said. Young fledglings are just now learning to feed on their own, and IBR officials believe there could be a lack of available fishing stocks, meaning pelicans are struggling to find enough fish to eat or taking unusual risks in search of food.

“They’re coming in starving, so obviously they’re either not getting to the fish that they need, or they’re eating improper fish,” Curtis said. “Low blood sugar sometimes leads to them landing in places that aren’t the best for them.”

Other bird species and marine mammals do not appear to be suffering now like the brown pelicans are, Curtis said.

Brown pelicans were put on the federal endangered species list in 1970 due to the harmful effects of the pesticide DDT, which was banned in 1972. They were removed from the endangered list in 2009.

If you see an injured or starving pelican, call your local animal control agency immediately, Curtis suggested. “When they’re down and out and showing signs of not having energy, they’re not going to last much longer out in the wild.”

The pelicans are being brought into wildlife centers in large pet carriers or cardboard boxes with ventilation holes punched into them. Once they are examined, they are treated for their injuries and receive water, food and dietary supplements, officials said.

International Bird Rescue is spending about $2,000 on 1,000 pounds of fish every day. The pelicans and their carriers are filling up rehab centers and even IBR’s outdoors aviaries, which can be observed through an online livestream.

“They are voracious eaters,” Curtis said. “We got a lot of mouths to feed.”

The nonprofit is asking for the public’s help in caring for the hundreds of birds it has taken in. Pelicans often stay at a rehab center for three to four weeks, “and we didn’t budget for that,” Curtis said. “We rely on the public to help us keep these majestic seabirds flying over the waves instead of in our bird centers.”

Donations to IBR can be made at

Andy Picon (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @andpicon

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