Experts still stumped by event that killed, sickened hundreds of California pelicans

When the 2-year-old California brown pelican wound up at the International Bird Rescue’s Fairfield center in June, her prognosis was not good. 

Discovered in San Francisco, the pelican was dehydrated and emaciated with a fishing hook lodged in her right wing. She wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of the native water birds have been found sick or dead along the California coastline in recent months and subsequently admitted to wildlife rehabilitation centers with similar symptoms. Some were found in “unusual” places like freeways and residential backyards, and most were unable to move or fly, the Santa Barbara Independent reported in May. 

JD Bergeron, the CEO of the International Bird Rescue, said his organization has taken 334 pelicans into its care since May 12 at its locations in Fairfield and San Pedro. Two hundred eighty-nine of those birds were found in Southern California while 45 were in Northern California — a subset of nearly 700 pelicans that were taken in for care during the unexplained stranding event, according to a news release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

“Pelicans are a frequent patient set of ours, but we’ve never seen them in these numbers all at once,” Bergeron told SFGATE. “And it’s always alarming when large numbers come in, because it can be the early indication of a spill event or something like that.”

However, there was no trace of environmental contaminants found in the pelicans. None of them tested positive for avian influenza or another viral disease. Domoic acid, a potent, naturally occurring neurotoxin that has delayed Dungeness crab season and poisoned sea lions, was also ruled out. 

“​​They were negative for basically all of the usual suspects of what could cause a mass event like this,” Bergeron said.

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