Every Bird Matters
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Posts Tagged ‘Brown pelicans sick’

April 18, 2009

Update: Influx of sick Brandt’s Cormorants

Hello everyone,

As we enter into an already busy spring season I wanted to take a few minutes to say thank you to everyone who supported IBRRC during the last year and more recently during the pelican event that we experienced this winter. We enter into spring with a smaller but similar influx of sick and disoriented birds. This time they are Brandt’s Cormorants. We have about 25 of them at the center right now and are expecting more soon. Most of these birds have come from the South Bay Area: Alviso and San Jose and some from Monterey as well. Most are adults in beautiful breeding plumage and all are in a weakened state but respond well to a treatment of fluid therapy and lots of fish. We also worm them as a courtesy to them to help them get back on track. All seabirds have internal and sometimes external parasites and although these are normal, they can aid in weakening a weak bird even more.

We asked the biologists at PRBO Conservation Science about Brandt’s Cormorants and how they should be acting this time of year. Here is a bit of what they communicated back to us on April 16.

From Pete Warzybok, Farallon Islands Biologist, PRBO Conservation Science:

“We have the largest breeding colony in the area on the Farallones, but the birds have been AWOL all spring. Usually we would have birds setting up nests by now, but they haven’t really even been around the island so far. My guess is that they are hanging out along the coast and foraging near shore. This also happened last year and we ended up with the smallest breeding population of Brandt’s and lowest reproductive success in almost 20 years. Similar failures were observed at colonies throughout northern California and Oregon. I hope that this is not the first sign of another colony failure.

We have certainly had a lot of wind out here the last few weeks and the ocean has really been churned up. In fact this is the windiest spring that I have experienced since I started here in 2000. It has more or less been blowing 25-30 continuously since the third week of March with few periods of relaxation. That might help to explain why the corms are not building nests. Cormies are visual predators, so the high winds and choppy seas might also make foraging difficult, resulting in the skinny birds that have been brought in to you. Although they should be able to dive below the chop, there just might not be much there to feed on. Right now I would imagine that there is a lot of upwelling with all this wind, but it doesn’t appear to be that productive. There has been very little krill seen out here and the water is still incredibly clear. This is typically not a good sign and generally indicates that there is little zooplankton to support the forage fishes and squid that the Brandt’s rely on.”

From April 17th Russell Bradley, M.Sc., Farallon Program Manager, PRBO Conservation Science:

“We have seen zero nesting activity yet out here, with intermittent low numbers of roosting birds, very few (if any) in colonies. No dead Brandt’s have been seen out here. Pelagic cormorants are attending sites, though not breeding yet. The Brandt’s response is very puzzling, as Cassin’s Auklets are breeding full swing and murre pre-breeding attendance has been strong. Definitely some mixed signals.”

So, IBRRC’s present theory is that these groundings of thin and weak adult cormorants are a combination of high winds, choppy seas and lack of fish. No signs of disease, seizures or anything else that would indicate something like domoic acid or Newcastle’s disease has been observed. Is it caused by climate change? Well, our climate is changing and we are seeing more of these die offs. In my 38 years plus of doing seabird rehabilitation along the coast of CA I have experienced die offs of scoters, loons, pelicans and some other species but they are clearly happening at an increased rate. I do want to point out that even as early as 50 years ago there were not rehab groups like IBRRC who took in these birds nor were there organizations like PRBO who studied seabird population levels so these types of “natural” or unnatural events may have occurred and go unnoticed. Who knows? But for sure, they are happening now. The weather and the seas are changing and that means that the animals that rely on them will have to deal with that also as we saw with the pelicans that experienced and unseasonable cold flash in Oregon and Northern CA this winter and now the cormorants.

We will keep you updated on the current situation as it changes.

– Jay Holcomb, IBRRC, Director

Latest press:

High winds blamed for sea bird strandings

February 11, 2009

California Brown Pelicans in distress: Event update

^Brown Pelican feet suffering from frostbite (IBRRC photo)

From Jay Holcomb, IBRRC’s exceutive director:

I would like to provide you with an overview of what we know about the recent California Brown Pelican event that began in mid-December 2008 and slowed down in the last week or so.

I wish we were able to point to a single “smoking gun” but we are not. Instead I will provide you with what we know and what we don’t know and, like us, let you make your own decisions. One thing is for sure, this was an unusual event and there remain unanswered questions that we will pursue throughout the following months.

IBRRC received about 200 California Brown Pelicans between our two rehabilitation centers in San Pedro (Southern California) and Fairfield/Cordelia (Northern California) centers. Approximately 60 of them are still in rehabilitation and we have released over 75 already. We will provide the mortality and released numbers for a later date when all the birds are gone. Approximately 75% of these birds were what we call mature birds. That means that they are at least 3 years of age. This is when they get their “adult” plumage. The rest are a mixture of juvenile birds. Over 500 reportings of sick, dying and disoriented birds have been logged also.

Related: State moves Pelican off Endangered Species List

When we began to get calls about brown pelicans in distress in mid-December we noticed a few things that we had not experienced in all the years we have been rehabilitating brown pelicans:

1) Most of the birds reported were adults. It is not that unusual for IBRRC to see confused and inexperienced juveniles sometimes do silly things like land on roads etc. but typically not experienced and “proven” adults.

2) Many were acting disoriented, landing on highways, roads, airport runways, in yards, many miles inland, in higher altitudes and hiding under piers and in corners of coastal parking lots. When we usually get sick or injured brown pelicans they are most often found on beaches or near the water somewhere like fishing docks etc. and their problems are often visual like injuries or dehydrated appearance. So, their sporadic behavior in this event clued us in to something unusual happening.

3) Many of them were thin and in a weakened state.

4) We had never had a situation like this in mid-winter with brown pelicans.

5) Many had what appeared to be frost bite on their feet. (see pictures)

These were the clues that encouraged us to take action, contact the renowned pelican biologists; the media and our colleagues who could help provide some insight to why this occurred. We sent blood samples from some of the Southern California pelicans to the Dave Caron Lab at the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California. We also send bodies of freshly diseased pelicans to the California Department of Fish & Game and The USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

Here is what we know so far:

1) The pelicans were negative for avian influenza.

2) The pelicans were negative for West Nile virus.

3) They did not have significant bacterial growth and no virus was evident. That would rule out anything that could be considered infectious at this time.

4) The necrotic tissue on feet and pouches is likely due to frostbite and not viral or bacterial in nature. These problems are most likely a result of a large number of birds getting caught in the cold snap that hit Oregon and Washington around Christmas.

5) Some of the birds in San Pedro did show low levels of domoic acid. From Dave Caron’s email, “we’ve now looked at samples from a total of 18 brown pelicans. Four were positive for domoic acid, but not at levels that we have seen during previous years during very toxic DA events in local waters. Our data continue to support our previous conjecture that domoic acid is playing a secondary, not primary, role in the present brown pelican mortality event.”

6) So far, histology to look for chronic domoic acid lesions have not shown anything unusual or evident.

7) If we get the birds in time they respond well to immediate fluid and nutritional therapy and as pelicans usually do in rehab, they eat well and gain their weight back.

So, some answers but still no smoking gun. There has been a lot of conjecture on what this is ultimately all about. We do know that California Brown Pelicans will travel north throughout California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in the summer months and usually begin to head back south in large numbers in October. This year an estimated 4,000 or so brown pelicans stayed in Oregon and Washington until December when the very cold snap came. The weather changed drastically and quickly and, although not proven, is likely what caused the frostbite that we saw in a number of birds. This has occurred on the east coast in the past and birds have suffered similar problems with their feet and pouch.

They began moving south in large numbers very quickly and it’s likely that a mixture of cold weather, the physical stress of an immediate weather induced migration and possibly the reduction of fish due to water temperature changes could have all contributed to this event.

This still does not explain the disoriented behavior of many of these birds and that leads us to believe that there may be something else going on that we don’t know. As I said before, we are still looking at the situation more in depth and will report if and when we find any answers.

However, the question remains: Why did so many birds stay north longer than usual and why did the weather change so drastically, so quickly? Given the reports around the world of dramatic and unusual climate changes it is not inappropriate to connect this phenomenon to climate change but again, the science to support that hypothesis 100% is still not in so, again, its just a theory.

Our deepest gratitude to everyone who supported IBRRC’s efforts to care for these birds and our colleagues who helped capture, transport birds and those provided their medical and scientific expertise in an attempt to gain some answers.


Jay Holcomb
Director, IBRRC

Previous postings

Media steps up reports on Brown Pelican crisis

What’s causing fatigued pelicans to drop from sky?

January 16, 2009

Theories abound: Pelican numbers updated

We have now logged over 460 dead or ill pelicans from Baja California to Astoria, Oregon since mid-December. Some test results have been received, but many results are still pending. More conclusive evidence is expected within a week or two. So far, birds have tested negative for avian influenza and for high levels of domoic acid.

One theory is that the brown pelicans migrated south late, likely due to unseasonably warm weather on the Oregon coast in November. In mid-December the coast experienced record-breaking cold temperatures, after which pelicans were found suffering from frostbite.

Pouch and foot injuries seen in California could be consistent with frostbite in birds that migrated after being caught in cold weather. The behavioral changes we have seen, however, are unusual. These behavioral changes are different from what is usually seen in starving, debilitated birds.

“While it is likely that the change in migration patterns contributed to the problems we are seeing, frostbite does not explain the behavioral changes we are seeing in the ill pelicans,” said Dr. Heather Nevill, IBRRC veterinarian. “Until complete test results are available, it is premature to assume that this event was caused solely by weather changes.”

The pelicans eat a lot of fish and IBRRC is asking the public to help defray costs associated with this crisis. Please consider adopting-a-pelican or donating to help.

If you see an ailing pelicans report it to your local rescue organization or by calling the toll-free California Wildlife Hotline 866-WILD-911. If you’ve found a dead pelican, you are encouraged to leave information by pressing option 2.

January 15, 2009

New pelican report: Cold weather to blame?

A New York Times story about the pelican crisis is quoting a state wildlife veterinarian that says the birds were brutalized by Mother Nature’s cold fury.

“Pelicans were observed in the middle of that storm and then seen moving south,” said David A. Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Game. About a week later, he said, ill birds started showing up on the California coast and further inland.

The tip-off for scientists, said Mr. Jessup, was frostbite. “It was severe in a lot of cases,” he said. “There were legs, toes and pouches frozen off.”

Read NY Times story: In Pelican Mystery, Weather Is a Suspect

Our report with photos and links is on our site

January 15, 2009

Pelican crisis: "It will take some detective work"

In 35 years of studying pelicans, Dan Anderson, an avian specialist at UC Davis, says “it will take some detective work” to find out why scores of pelicans are showing thin, disoriented or even dead (photo, right) from Oregon to Baja California.

In a story from the Chicago Sun-Times, Anderson, says he’s only seen this kind if event “once or twice” in his professional life.

Others are feeling the same way: “We’ve seen enough to imply that something is odd, and right now it is a big question mark what it is,” said Jay Holcomb, Executive Director of IBRRC said in the same media report.

So far, many theories have surfaced about what might be happening. It could be a toxin, such as fire retardant, running off the land from recent fires. Or the domoic acid, a nuero-toxin that causes brain damage. Or even the cold weather that hit the Pacific Northwest in December that triggered another disease. Maybe all three contributed to this confluence of events.

Note: Recent tests of six pelicans did show levels of domoic acid in three of the birds. Read the press release

Since mid-December, IBRRC has taken in 160 pelicans for treatment in two California bird centers. IBRRC has also reported at least 300 dead brown pelicans in this same time period.

They been found in the oddest places: freeways, backyards and in store parking lots. We even had one report of one found at 7200 feet in New Mexico. They are disoriented, malnourished and badly in need of care. [ Note: Photo, right, from Albertson’s parking lot in Southern California – Photo courtesy: Peter Wallerstein/Marine Animal Rescue ]

In meantime, if you see a pelican in need, please call this toll free number: 866-WILD-911. You can submit unusual photos of pelican sighting to webcoot@ibrrc.org)

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