Mystery: Brown Pelicans Dying Along California Coast

Brown Pelican
A disproportionate amount of Brown Pelicans have been dying along the California coast in recent days. This is especially troubling since the pelicans have been on the endangered list since 1970.  The birds were nearly decimated before the chemical pesticide DDT was banned in 1972.

This grim development is being monitored by wildlife conservation and rescue groups including WildRescue, operated by Rebecca Dmytryk.


According to Dmytryk, more than 50 dead adult brown pelicans have been recovered along the California coast and more than 60 ill or dying pelicans have been rescued in recent days. She fears those numbers may increase dramatically as more birds are discovered.

From freeways to backyards – more and more birds are turning up where they don’t belong, disoriented and dying. The birds are normally found on beaches, wharfs, and harbors.

Domoic acid, a neurotoxin which has plagued the species in the past, has been known to cause similarly disorienting behavior. What is so baffling and troubling to experts about the current turn of events is that regular testing of coastal waters has not revealed any unusual amounts of domoic acid. The birds ingest such toxins via the fish they eat, which have in turn absorbed them from the water.

Since the DDT pesticide ban, Brown Pelicans have improved in number to the point where they are being considered for delisting from endangered status. They are, however, still considered endangered and the current situation is very disturbing to wildlife experts who don’t yet know the cause of this massive and sudden event. Speculation as to the cause ranges from a possible chemical spill to exposure to toxins as a result of water runoff from the California wildfires.

Testing is currently underway to determine what is responsible for the deaths. Blood samples are being examined carefully in a frantic effort to unravel the mystery of the dying birds.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service describes the adult brown pelican as a large dark gray-brown water bird with white around the head and neck. Younger birds are described as gray-brown above and on the neck, with white underneath.

If you live in California and you find a dead or ailing pelican, please call WildRescue at (866) WILD-911.

Image Credit: ChuckThePhotographer at flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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