Pelicans: What in the world is going on?

Photo credit: Jay Holcomb/IBRRC

Photo credit: Jay Holcomb/IBRRC

What’s going on with the pelicans? California brown pelicans seem to have gone mad, begging for food, tailing boats, landing in people’s backyards, hanging out on school rooftops in the Valley and washing up dead along the shore. While it’s easy to tell that something is wrong with pelicans, coming up with a fool proof answer to what ails them is not.

With 45 million years of evolution under their belts, pelicans should have things down when it comes to migrating, hunting, mating and nesting. Yet, something has thrown off their natural rhythm this year and the culprits can be narrowed down to four potential suspects: pelicans, evolution, Mother Nature and humans.

After listening to David Weeshoff, an expert volunteer with the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) who has been in the thick of the pelican crisis, it appears that all parties are guilty to some degree.

Let’s start with the pelicans. During summer, some pelicans fly north to hang out along the coast of Oregon and Washington and then fly back to Southern California and Mexico for the winter. But this year, some of these pelicans decided to stay in Oregon and Washington a bit too long. This delay caused them to encounter some cold, wet and nasty weather that they usually would have avoided.

This foul weather caused many problems for our fowl friends and most likely prevented them from going about their usual business of hunting for fish. It’s tough to find fish in the pouring rain with cold winds and rocky waves disrupting the pelican’s perfected plunge diving process.

Leaving Oregon and Washington so late turned out to be a bad decision. The IBRRC took in pelicans with frost bite on their feet and pouches! But nobody knows why the pelicans decided to wait so long before heading south or why some never left at all.

IBRRC Director Jay Holcomb has his own theory on why pelicans decided to stay, “Pelicans are smart birds and follow the fish,” said Holcomb. “But the sardines they eat are very sensitive to any temperature changes. If ocean temperatures change just two degrees, sardines head for deeper water out of a pelican’s reach.”

So for pelicans following fish further north, this was a risk that didn’t pay off in the long run.

But pelicans in California are also having trouble finding fish and this is where evolution comes in as a suspect. Weeshoff explained that pelicans are obligate piscivores, meaning by design they have to eat fish. And by design they have to hunt within 20 miles of the coast because at night pelicans become roosting birds, maximizing the benefits of their perfectly adapted bodies for resting along rocky shoreline habitats. So if the fish are more than 20 miles offshore, then tough luck for pelicans.

Also, by design pelicans can only hunt near the surface of the water. This is thanks to protective air sacs located along the front of their bodies that cushion the impact of hitting water after a 60-foot plunge dive. Which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But these little air sacs and the pelican’s bulky shape make deep diving very impractical and pretty much impossible and that can be a problem if fish have disappeared from the ocean’s surface.

But where are the fish? This question leads to our third suspect: Mother Nature.

This is an El Nino year after all. “We haven’t had the opportunity to talk to fishermen about current fishing conditions,” said Weeshoff. “But obviously something in the oceans has changed causing fish to move further offshore or to deeper water, out of the pelicans’ reach.” Otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing so many starving pelicans all over the place.

Other deep diving birds such as cormorants are doing fine, leading IBRRC staff to theorize that pelicans’ favorite fish food of Northern anchovies and Pacific sardines is off in deeper water, which only causes major problems for pelicans.

And that leaves the last and final suspect: humans.

The pelicans checking into the IBRRC are starving, but bird rescuers have also been finding a clear oily coating on many pelicans’ feathers. The IBRRC is waiting for analysis on this colorless oily substance to figure out the source of the problem. But Holcomb and Weeshoff speculate that the source is pollution associated with all the stormwater runoff that has washed into the ocean during the most recent series of rainstorms.

Oil or oily substances can cause serious problems for pelicans (and all birds) because oil causes their feathers to stick together in clumps. As the IBRRC website explains, “feathers overlap each other like the shingles on a roof to create an entire waterproof covering.” Once this protective covering becomes separated exposing a pelican’s sensitive skin to water and air, birds often die from hypothermia.

Thankfully, the staff and volunteers at IBRRC are experts in responding to oil spills and have plenty of knowledge on how to best remove oily stuff from feathers. Right now their method of choice is washing birds in Dawn dishwashing soap. Dawn soap is the most effective and efficient at removing oil from feathers and isn’t too harsh on rescuers’ hands. Sounds like a commercial! But Weeshoff said they are always trying other soaps to see if there is something that works better, but so far nothing works as well as Dawn.

There you have it, a human solution to a human induced problem.

Since the beginning of the year more than 400 pelicans (mostly adult pelicans) have been treated at the IBRRC locations in San Pedro and Fairfield, California. With so many pelicans needing help, rescue centers up and down the coast have been overwhelmed. If you would like to find out more information on how you can help, please visit the IBRRC website at Helping the pelicans is a feel-good move that can assuage any lingering collective guilt for our role in their current predicament.

As for the rest of the issues, the pelicans’ strategy to follow fish north, evolution and Mother Nature, well there’s really only so much we can do.


  1. J Napoli says

    Well, I guess somebody has to say thank you for “The Pelican Brief!” Very cool article, love how you broke down all the reasons. I never thought I would learn today that sardines are so touchy about water temperature!

  2. Judy Hilson says

    Another great article! I also like how you broke down the reasons for the pelicans dying. My K teaching friends will be interested in the knowledge because soon they will be studying the ocean environment with their classes.

  3. Jocelyn K says

    Thanks for the info – I have walked on the same stretch of beach in Cardiff almost daily for about two years and have been concerned about the number of dead birds, especially pelicans, I have seen recently. I am pleased to see there is an easy way to give them a helping hand.

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