Posted by: JohnnyRook | January 8, 2009

It’s Raining Sick Pelicans Along US West Coast

The Orange County Register is reporting that 100’s of ill, brown pelicans have been reported falling from the sky along the west coast of the United States and Mexico.

Pelicans suffering from a mysterious malady are crashing into cars and boats, wandering along roadways and turning up dead by the hundreds across the West Coast, from southern Oregon to Baja California, Mexico, bird-rescue workers say.

Wildlife rehabilitation experts in various cities have been treating the birds, but have been unable to save many of them. The birds’ symptoms have the experts puzzled.

While some of the symptoms resemble those associated with domoic-acid poisoning — an ocean toxin that sometimes affects sea birds and mammals — other symptoms do not. Domoic acid also apparently has not been found in significant amounts offshore, although more tests are needed.

Rescuers are wondering whether the illness is caused by a virus, or even by contaminants washed into the ocean after recent fires across Southern California. Many of the birds also have swollen feet.

“These birds are on the freeway, getting run over,” said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the rescue center in San Pedro. “A bunch we’ve seen have been hit. They’ve been landing on yards five miles inland. When some of the people have captured them in parking lots, they just sit in the corner. They just go pick them up.”

According to the Guardian:

Heather Nevill, a veterinarian tracking the problem for the International Bird Rescue Research Centre (IBRRC), said the malady could be anything from disease to a suite of converging, harmful environmental conditions.

“Maybe the weather has been particularly difficult on them,” Nevill said. “Maybe the fish stocks are particularly low. It might be more than one thing, all coming together at once.”

The IBRRC reported initial test results today on it’s blog, stating that 3 of 6 birds examined, tested positive for domoic acid, but that it was not clear that domoic-acid poisoning was the principal culprit.

Samples of phytoplankton collected recently from the waters off of Santa Barbara to Newport Beach were also tested. 5 out of 14 samples indicated very low concentrations.

These are the first of many test results expected. Additional blood and tissue samples are being tested and we anticipate more information within the next two weeks.

“We are very appreciative of the rapid test results from the Dave Caron Lab at USC. We believe these results are significant but do not explain all the signs we are seeing in the pelicans. We are seeing a number of conditions that are not typical of domoic acid toxicity or a domoic acid event. Therefore, we are continuing to collect and test samples, keeping an open mind and considering all possibilities,” according to Dr. Nevill.

Due to the great distribution of ailing pelicans (Baja to WA), and the fact that most of the pelicans are thin, as opposed to being of good body weight (typical in a domoic acid event), this indicates to us that domoic acid is likely playing a secondary role to a larger problem.

The group is working with California Fish and Game wildlife veterinarian Pamela Swift, who said she is trying to obtain fresh carcasses so samples can be sent to laboratories for analysis. Results could come by next week. Occasional disoriented birds are not unusual, the rescuers said. Young pelicans also often turn up starving or debilitated. But the pelicans appearing along California shores are adult birds, and the sheer number of them is highly unusual, rescuers and veterinarians said. “This year, quite a few adult birds are coming in starving”, Nevill said. “That’s not typical.”

Rebecca Dmytryk of Wildrescue.org” summed up how unusual the situation is: “I’ve been rescuing wildlife on the California coast since 1981,” she said. “And I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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