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Pelican lives sometimes too brief

Flooding, downed trees, power outages. The recent series of storms have not only battered the land but the ocean and its dependents, too. California brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) are some of the weather’s casualties. Though seabird feathers provide insulation against cold and water, they are not completely waterproof, so pelicans must regularly return to roosting sites following a fishing foray to dry out and rest. Nonstop drenching prevents recovery. And finding food during these times is harder because their prey — sardines, mackerel, and especially anchovies — travel at greater depths to avoid turbulent surface conditions.

Add to this wretched water quality. Rainwater mixes with oil, grease and other contaminants, particularly from roadways, landscaping and agricultural areas, where it ends up in storm drains, travels downward to the coast and is flushed into the ocean. Because petroleum products float, pelican feathers become greasy, which affects their insulative properties. The result is many hypothermic, undernourished pelicans. Further, when pelicans groom themselves, they inadvertently consume the contaminants. Consequently, extended storm systems cut life short for many pelicans.

I interacted with a victim of such circumstance while strolling the boardwalk at La Jolla Shores during a lull in the storm action. The pelican was crouched on the ground amid the bushes below the hotel restaurant. After phoning the wonderful nonprofit organization Wildlife Assist, Marie Molloy, president and founder, met me at the end of Vallecitos Street to rescue the distressed bird. She felt under the wings for warmth. There was none. She picked up the bird. It was “light as a feather.” The pelican was suffering from hypothermia and starvation. Marie transported the animal to SeaWorld for rehabilitation but the pelican died overnight. Since the storms, SeaWorld reports an upswing in receiving sick or injured pelicans, as has the International Bird Rescue Research Center in San Pedro. It’s tough to see an animal suffer.

When birds first took flight 37 to 65 million years ago, some scientists say pelicans were there, and they haven’t changed much since. The brown pelican, which exists solely in the Western Hemisphere, weighs up to 8 pounds, grows to just over 4 feet long and boasts a wingspan of more than 6 feet. Of the seven pelican species, only the brown hunts for fish by making spectacular, head-first kamikaze dives from as high as 60 feet, when scanning the ocean for schooling fish, which give themselves away by having reflective silvery scales. A pelican surfacing with an unsuspecting fish trapped in its expandable pouch tilts its bill down to drain out water, then tosses its head back to swallow. What a contrast from other pelican species, which swim along like ducks, daintily dipping their heads to gulp down fish.

Take a look at the colony loafing cliffside off the Cove. Some sport dramatic plumage, indicating the breeding colors displayed by both males and females. Above the gray-brown body, the chest and head feathers shift from white to golden, the eyes, generally yellow-gray, turn blue, and skin surrounding the eyes becomes bright pink. The otherwise pale throat pouch flares bright red, and the back of the standard-issue white neck turns a rich chestnut. Juvenile plumage is a muted brown above with a white belly. Breeding times are heavily dependent on the abundance or scarcity of food.

After some 40 million years of survival, the brown pelican nearly became extinct due to pesticide runoff contaminating the nearshore ocean environment. From ingestion by minute plankton, the poisons worked their way up the food chain to pelicans, the canaries in the coal mine. One pesticide, endrin, killed pelicans outright, and another, DDT, resulted in thin-shelled eggs that broke under the weight of incubating parents. Banning DDT and designating the birds as endangered on both state and federal lists was done in time to rescue the birds from the brink. Yet even now, 40 years later, low levels of DDT residues persist in the tissues of some birds and their eggshells. DDT can remain stable in the environment for decades, because it is stored in body fat. During times of stress and malnutrition, like recent storm events, the fatty acid deposits may be broken down and metabolized, releasing the poisons into the bird’s system. DDT is still in use around the world and remains a threat, not only to brown pelicans but also to other seabirds and birds of prey. As an aside, though DDT has diminished in the environment, it is still widely present and is used elsewhere around the world. The Environmental Protection Agency lists the pesticide as a probable human carcinogen. Human and fish food for thought.


— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to