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Researchers: Climate change may have led to pelican deaths

February 25, 2009 | 11:26 am


Hundreds of California brown pelicans that died or became ill on their way to the Channel Islands and Baja California for the winter may have been victims of climate change, which delayed their migration, researchers said today.

About 500 of the birds have been discovered along the coast since December, many of them suffering from frostbite, disorientation and starvation, said Rebecca Dmytryk of WildRescue, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization in Malibu. Of the total, 300 were either found dead or subsequently died.

Fooled by the unusually warm weather, the birds had stayed in Oregon and Washington about two months longer than normal and ended up flying straight into a cold front in mid-December.

“Pelicans are kind of like a subtropical species, they’re not built to withstand the cold temperatures,” Dmytryk said. “Here are these birds trying to make it all the way down from Oregon, where they got caught in record-breaking cold weather. I’ve been doing this close to 30 years rescuing animals on the coast here, and I’ve never seen this kind of event.”

The International Bird Rescue Research Center, which runs the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care & Education Center in San Pedro, estimates about 4,000 pelicans made the late migration but cold weather, physical stress and unstable food supply led some to die. The research center has received close to 200 pelicans, 75 of which have been treated and released back near the ocean with tracking bands.

The California Fish and Game Commission unanimously voted Feb. 17 to remove the pelican from the state endangered species list, noting that there are now about 8,500 breeding pairs in the Channel Islands. Dmytryk hopes that when the Office of Administrative Law reviews the commission’s decision, it will take into account how climate change is affecting the pelicans.

“Typically, with evolution, species will evolve and adapt to their new environment,” she said. “When there are rapid changes in their environment, some species will not.”

-- Corina Knoll

Photo: A California brown pelican nabs a fish at Los Cerritos Wetlands in Long Beach. Credit: Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times