Earlier this summer, Californians were alarmed to find sick or dead pelicans washing ashore in unusually high numbers. More than a hundred were reported from beaches between Santa Cruz and Monterey and around Ventura.
Granted, this is old news – even the New York Times covered it a month ago. But last week I was out at Garrapata State Park south of Carmel and saw this one doing a creditable impression of Archaeopteryx. It’s a sad sight when you’re used to seeing your pelicans stretched across the face of a wave and funneling down the line, or spread high against the blue sky in fat chevrons, lumbering into the sunshine. Then today I saw another, this one up in the low dune vegetation above the high tide line, in Moss Landing.
News reports are proffering a couple of explanations for the apparent mass die-off: it’s either domoic acid poisoning from harmful algae (causing drunk pelican syndrome), or starvation. The California Dept. of Fish and Game came down on the side of starvation, noting that lab tests had not been able to find any signs of poisoning. Starvation had more evidence going for it. This year saw lots of successful breeding among pelicans, and state biologists think this meant a burgeoning crop of young pelicans that suddenly found themselves unable to find enough to eat. Personally, I think that’s a bit of a stretch: are fish stocks really so low that pelicans are dropping dead? There’s no mention of other seabirds starving to death. Or large, baitfish-eating fish, either, for that matter. (Hundreds of baby terns in Los Angeles died when someone hosed their nests off an abandoned barge, but that’s different.)
The Fish and Game’s explanation does have one bit of evidence going for it: all 140 or so washed-up pelicans have been so-called young-of-the-year, only 2 to 4 months old. Essentially, they’re the feathered equivalent of puppies – not exactly deft even by a pelican’s somewhat ungainly standards. The thinking goes that if anybody is going to lose out in the struggle for food, it’ll be these gawky adolescents.
With great strings of healthy pelicans on show at nearly any state beach, it’s easy to treat this mystery lightly. But we shouldn’t forget that brown pelicans were nearly wiped out by DDT in the 1970s and they’re still listed as endangered. For all their lovable goofiness, I’d like to see them continue their swing back from that brink.