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Home  |   Pelican Project  |   Overview

Pelican Project


International Bird Rescue has been rehabilitating California Brown Pelicans since 1971. From 1971 to 1989, two factors affected the amount of Brown Pelicans that we received and rehabilitated. First, the California Brown Pelican population was decimated by the use of DDT, which put them on the Endangered Species List. Additionally, we stopped taking in birds for rehabilitation other than oil spills during the late 1970s and 1980s, due to the demand for our services in out-of-state oil spills and trainings. (Also see: Pelican Recovery a Success Story)

Oiled Brown-PelicanBut in 1990, we reactivated our aquatic bird rehabilitation program, then based at our Berkeley headquarters. This allowed us to provide a much-needed service to the San Francisco Bay Area and to other area wildlife rehabilitators who were not equipped to care for these species. Our rehabilitation program again became an avenue for research and the training of staff and volunteers, helping us to establish effective response to oil spills and other emergencies such as domoic acid, botulism and algae events.

By 2000, we moved our offices and our rehabilitation program to two new facilities capable of caring for thousands of oiled and non-oiled birds. These two California state regional oiled bird rehabilitation centers are located in Fairfield, serving the Northern California region, and in San Pedro, serving the Los Angeles and Southern California region.

Once the doors to these new facilities opened, we immediately began receiving an increased number of injured, oiled and sick Brown Pelicans. As the Brown Pelican population rebounded (the species was taken off the Endangered Species List in 2009), our pelican intake numbers have steadily increased. We now receive up to 600 Brown Pelicans a year and release over 350 year back into the wild.

Common Afflictions

Pelican Aviary

California Brown Pelicans are common patients in our centers nowadays. Over the past decade, we have seen an increasing number of unusual occurrences such as domoic acid outbreaks. A neurotoxin produced by harmful algal blooms, domoic acid causes seizures and disorientation in affected birds.

Fishing and wildlife conflicts are also a reoccurring problem. In the early 2000s, we experienced two different occurrences where massive schools of fish moved along the coast. As these schools moved through coastal areas like the Santa Cruz harbor, fisherman and pelicans clashed. In one event, we received about 100 entangled and hooked pelicans suffering from infections, wounds from hooks and monofilament line constrictions. In the winter of 2009/2010, we took in more than 300 pelicans between both of our centers within a month. Ninety-five percent of these patients were adult birds in beautiful breeding plumage, but all of them were starving and contaminated from a colorless substance that we have yet to identify.

Hatch-year (HY) birds often come to us within months after they leave the nest. This is the most vulnerable time of their lives, when they must learn to hunt quickly. Some of these babies that are having a rough time figuring it out often show up in parking lots and odd places begging for food or just hanging around. They are often brought to us for care. Our policy for thin and weak HY birds is to hydrate them, treat them for injuries or infections, feed them and get them back into the wild as soon as possible. Mortality in HY birds can be as high as 70% in the first year, so we expect to see a higher mortality with these birds once released. However, many of them do quite well once they get this second chance and are sighted alive.

Although we do occasionally receive petroleum-oiled pelicans, it's not very common outside of an oil spill. But we do receive fish-oiled pelicans regularly. These are pelicans that are feeding or begging near a public or commercial fish-processing station where fish blood, guts and oil drain into the ocean or onto the ground. Hungry pelicans feeding on fish scraps get excited and can easily become covered in fish water and oil. All oils coat birds' feathers to the point where they lose their ability to stay warm and buoyant. Many of the fish-oiled birds succumb to hypothermia and die in the cold winter months.

Another result of these fish-processing stations is that they attract sea lions also looking for a free handout. When fish scraps or fish water are dumped into areas where sea lions and birds coexist, a feeding frenzy can occur, and pelicans that are caught in the middle can be attacked by excited sea lions. This is a problem that has grown to serious proportions in the last few years.

Hooked Pelican

But the largest ongoing menace affecting Brown Pelicans is monofilament line and fishing tackle pollution. About 40% of all of our pelicans come to us with injuries from fishing tackle entanglement. This is a problem that is within our collective ability to manage - it just requires the public's awareness and commitment to remove these products from the environment.

Rehabilitating Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans adjust better to temporary captivity than many other wild birds and they learn to eat from a bowl quickly. Still, they face many challenges on the road to recovery.

Like all birds, pelicans also have hollow bones and many air pockets throughout their bodies that keep them light and buoyant. Though they may look heavy, the largest Brown Pelicans weigh only about 7 lbs. Because these birds are plunge feeders that hover, dive, pop back up to the surface and float, they have what we call "built-in bubble wrapping" - countless air pockets under the skin that feel like the plastic bubble wrap that we use for packing. This cushioning device softens the impact and allows them to resurface immediately. Yet this incredible adaptation can be a problem in rehabilitation. Hollow bones and air pockets are also an avenue for disease and fungal transmission in weakened birds. When pelicans are treated, we ensure that they have proper ventilation and proven fluid therapy techniques that protect them from such problems.

Pelican WashOiled brown pelicans are not difficult to wash. You have a built in handle, their beak, and with two or three people, they are fairly easily washed and withstand the stress of the process.

Our job as rehabilitators is to treat these birds for their problems and get them back on their feet and into a healthy and stable condition functioning. Each of our centers is situated with various small cages for holding pelicans that are receiving daily treatment, and each center has a 100-foot aviary specifically designed for pelicans so that they can exercise and we can evaluate their ability to fly and maneuver. Unlike White Pelicans that swim and scoop fish, these birds have to hover and make precision plunge dives in order to catch fish. The aviaries help us evaluate the health and flying ability of Brown Pelicans, so that when they are released we are confident they can successully feed.

Banded Brown Pelicans Post-Release Study

We put significant resources toward rehabilitating these wonderful birds, and most of the pelicans that we receive would not have survived without our help. Therefore, we want to know what happens to them. Where do they go? How long do they live?

All of our birds are federally banded with metal bands upon release. These bands are inscribed with a prefix and a suffix that contains five numbers. (For example, "0669-38711.")  Pelican bands are large but not always easy to read with binoculars and often require a scope to view them properly. But even with a scope, it's difficult to see all the numbers, as the band is wrapped around the bird's leg.

BandsIn 2009, we began putting large plastic blue bands with white letters and numbers on our rehabilitated Brown Pelicans. ("A22," for example.) These bands are in addition to the metal federal band. Because of this, we are receiving news of many more sightings  - exactly what we had hoped for! Anyone interested about blue-banded pelicans can report these birds as they are encountered.

Evaluating Data

Now that we are receiving more information about our released pelicans, how do we evaluate their success?

We're currently compiling all the encounters with these pelicans over the past three years in a database that will go live soon. Pelican lovers have sent us encounter information from California, Oregon, Washington, Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico states thus far.

Understanding each column

Metal Bands: A metal federal band number is placed on each bird upon release. The numbers on these bands are not easy to read but they consist of a prefix and a suffix, such as 0669-38711.

Blue Plastic Bands: Prior to late 2009, we only banded our pelicans with metal federal bands. Now we put blue plastic bands on all of our pelicans. Each blue band has a letter and two numbers. The last two numbers on the federal band are typically the two numbers on the blue band. For example: Federal band number 0669-38711 will be blue band A11. The letter is changed for every 100 bands. So far, we have used letters A, C, E, H, J, K, M, P, R, S and T. This field is where we list the blue band information. Sometimes we just get the blue band reported, but we can match it up with the federal bands that are on our records.

Reason for Rehab: We wanted to provide a basic overview of why the bird came into our care. (For example, "fishing tackle injury.") After a brief explanation, we also include the age of the bird in the following categories: "HY" means hatching year, "SY" means second year, "ASY" means after-second-year and "ATY" means after-third-year. So, you may see something like "Injured ASY," which means it was an after-second-year bird that came to us and was treated for an injury.

Release Site: Most of our Brown Pelicans are rehabilitated at one of our two wildlife care centers and are released nearby. However, we do occasionally rehabilitate pelicans in oil spills elsewhere in North America. For instance, you may notice that we have some encounters from birds that were rehabilitated during an oil spill in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico on the lower coast of the Gulf of Mexico. We were able to go back to Mexico to look for these birds a few years after the spill, and some of those birds have been sighted in a few of the Gulf states.

Encounter Site: Individuals who have encountered a banded pelican provides us with information on where and when they encountered the bird. The information that we receive is sometimes general and sometimes specific.

Days After Release: This field indicates the time from release to the latest encounter. You will see that some birds are encountered very soon after release, others many years later and some numerous times.

Dates: To get an idea of each bird's journey, we have included the date the bird was brought into care, the date of release and the encounter date.

Additional Sightings: Some birds have been sighted multiple times. Rather than creating a new field for each sighting, we created this field so that we can record encounters for each bird as they occur.

Report blue-banded pelicans here.


History of Oiled Seabrids

Download PDF (370KB)

Why Rehabilitate Oiled Birds

Every bird matters

How Does International Bird Rescue Help Oiled Birds?

Learn about the process of helping and releasing birds

How Oil Affects Birds

How a small amount of oil on birds' feathers can be deadly