Juvenile brown pelicans are dying on the North Coast - not from a virus or bacteria - but from becoming covered in fish oil, a substance that harms the birds’ feathers.
A flock of pelicans - totaling 70 Friday, July 13 - have taken up residence at the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center in Bayside after being rescued from Humboldt and Del Norte counties by volunteers. The nonprofit center is attempting to nurse the juvenile birds back to health, but has already been forced to euthanize three extremely ill pelicans.
This is the second time in two years that the center and the Arcata-based Bird Ally X organization have seen juvenile pelicans suffering from the same ailment. Last year, the center saw more than 50 pelicans, which had been "Dumpster diving" in fish waste containers and fed by fishermen.
When oil contaminates a pelican’s feathers, the birds lose their waterproofing ability and become vulnerable to the cold and can suffer from hypothermia. According to the center, the birds then die of exposure and starvation.
Bird Ally X Co-Director Monte Merrick said he initially started receiving calls Monday about ailing pelicans in Trinidad. He said he went to the Trinidad harbor and identified about 40 birds that are in need of help, about half of which were in the water.
"They were completely soaking wet, trying to get this contaminant off of them," Merrick said. "They were in a pretty sad state."
As of Friday afternoon, Merrick said volunteers had captured 35 pelicans from the Trinidad area and are continuing to revisit the beach each day. He said the pelicans, which are only a few months old, are likely being fed by people around the boat launch and charter boat fishermen. He said the young birds don’t know any better and eat the scraps, forgoing learning how to plunge dive.
"Like every other life form, including (human) teenagers, the easier meal is usually the one that’s gone for," Merrick said.
Sick pelicans have also been identified in the Crescent City harbor, where birds became contaminated in August 2011 from open fish waste totes at the harbor’s fish cleaning station. Trapdoor lids and signs were subsequently installed to make sure the bins weren’t left uncovered.
Crescent City Harbormaster Richard Young said the lids are still there, but that there are new fishermen in the harbor this year that are not necessarily up to speed on the fish waste issue.
"We put up fliers to try to educate people," Young said. "We’re going to start enforcing our regulations about not throwing (scrap) fish in the water."
Young said other people are pulling the lids off of the bins to pull fish out and deliberately feeding the pelicans.
Merrick said volunteers rescued 10 pelicans Thursday in Crescent City and that as many as 40 to 60 pelicans are in need of help there. He said one issue the team identified is that a pipe attached to a fish-cleaning table is spraying out oily water from underneath itself. He said the pelicans are standing in the spray, not knowing they’re getting covered in fish oil.
In order to help the pelicans, each one must be washed, rinsed and dried at the care facility - a process that takes hours for each individual bird.
Humboldt Wildlife Care Center volunteer Lisa Kennedy said the washing process of all the birds is anticipated to begin today. She said it typically takes about an hour for a team of three people to wash each bird, as each feather must be scrubbed with Dawn dishwashing soap. Once the bird is washed, it is carefully rinsed for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half.
"It’s a very slow, tedious process," Kennedy said.
Hypothermia is a concern, so the room and water temperatures must be at just the right levels. Kennedy said the birds are eventually placed in a warm room with pet dryers. Merrick adores pelicans, identifying them as a majestic North Coast bird, but said it’s not cheap to rehabilitate them. He said the center is going through about 300 pounds of smelt a day.
"In fish alone, we’re approaching $400 a day for food," Merrick said.
With a total of 100 to 150 birds anticipated for rescue, Merrick said the center is asking the community for help. The center is looking for help from the public in the form of monetary donations, Dawn dish soap, pet carriers and gift cards to local hardware, grocery, pet and office supply stores. Volunteers are also welcomed to donate their time.
PHOTO COURTESY DANIEL CORONA/BIRD ALLY X
Pelicans stand in the spray of a discharge pipe at the Crescent City Harbor fish-cleaning table Thursday, July 12.