Despite plenty to eat, hundreds of brown pelicans are starving to death in California

Dead Pelicans California
Dead Pelicans California. via Youtube video

For the second time in two years, large numbers of brown pelicans are showing up sick and injured along California’s coastline, and scientists are racing to find out why.

As of this week, hundreds of these birds have died. Current evidence points to starvation as the cause, despite there being plenty of food (typically surface dwelling fish like herring or anchovies) for them to eat. Though the species are also found on the east coast of the U.S., the Atlantic birds aren’t suffering a similar trend.

“We don’t know why, but [the west coast pelicans] are not finding the food that they need,” says Jeni Smith, the zoological curator of animal rescue programs at SeaWorld San Diego. “And if that’s the case, then they are looking for it elsewhere, and that might explain why they are inland or in unusual locations.”

In late April, wildlife rehabilitation centers began to receive reports of pelicans being spotted in abnormal locations such as people’s backyards and parking lots, with many displaying puzzling behavior and appearing sluggish, unresponsive, or severely emaciated.

After these animals are picked up, wildlife experts are essentially stuck working triage. “They’re dehydrated, they’re lethargic, they’re cold, they may have an injury,” says Smith. “We do as much as we possibly can, and sometimes they just come in and it’s just too late.”

Sickened brown pelicans have been a mix of juveniles and those older and fully grown—with big bills, broad wings and bodies that make plunge-diving for supper look easy. They’re known for swooping down from heights of more than 60 feet to catch their prey and can live up to 40 years.

Experts are investigating what other factors may be behind the reason the brown pelicans, which have bounced back from the federal endangered list, are once again washing up dead.

Why are brown pelicans getting sick?

During a similar starvation event in 2022, nearly eight hundred brown pelicans were admitted to wildlife rehab centers, with 394 eventually returned to the wild, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Unfortunately, animal necropsies done on deceased pelicans failed to reveal any answers behind the reason for that event, Smith says.

So far this year, 116 pelicans have been taken in by the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network (SBWCN), a number that is still dwarfed by the 270 reported a few years ago.

“This won’t be the last time that we get an influx of a particular species related to something that’s going on in their environment,” says Ariana Katovich, the executive director of the SBWCN. “So for us, it’s really about learning the lessons from each event and implementing them.”

The cause of this year’s crisis also remains largely unknown, but some interesting speculations are flying about. One theory is that the weather may be to blame, as powerful winds or low visibility could be preventing the pelicans from diving well enough to catch their meals. This may also better explain the influx of pelicans coming in with injuries caused by fishing gear, as hungry birds often get caught by fish hooks or ensnared in fishing lines.

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