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What's wrong with California's pelican population?

January 5, 2009 |  7:39 pm

California brown pelican

It's a mystery with no answer yet: Why are California brown pelicans turning up far from home, and in many cases confused, fatigued and with bruised pouches?  The Times' Louis Sahagun reports:

In the last week, the big brown birds known for flying in formation over beaches have been reported wobbling across Culver Boulevard in Playa del Rey and on a Los Angeles International Airport runway. Two dead pelicans were found on the 110 Freeway. Elsewhere, one smacked into a car.

"We're a little freaked out by this," said Rebecca Dmytryk, spokeswoman for the nonprofit WildRescue. "We've never seen anything like it."

Wildlife rescuers and biologists are stumped; domoic acid, a neurotoxin sometimes found in algae, is a known threat to pelicans and other marine animals, but this isn't the season for it.  So what gives? 

"We just became aware of this problem a few days ago," said David Caron, a professor of biological sciences at USC who was analyzing pelican blood samples sent to him from throughout the state. "By the end of the week, we'll have information that should tell us whether or not these animals test positive for phytoplankton toxins."

It's estimated that about 70,000 breeding brown pelican pairs live in California and Baja California, although they're still listed as an endangered species .

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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