The number of sick and dying brown pelicans turning up along the Southern California coast has surged in the past week, according to the wildlife organization International Bird Rescue.
More than 30 pelicans have been brought to the organization's wildlife rehabilitation center in Los Angeles. In a blog post, the organization said that the number of sick pelicans had more than doubled in just a few days. The big birds are showing signs of emaciation, hypothermia and anemia. The reason for the uptick is unknown.
It's normal to receive recently fledged baby pelicans this time of year, but the current wave of sick birds includes many second-year pelicans, said Kylie Clatterbuck, the center's manager.
The organization said there have been many cases of pelicans landing on city streets, residential yards and airport runways. A well-publicized incident occurred April 28 when two pelicans landed at Pepperdine University's graduation ceremony in Malibu, causing an uproar.
"They just don't want to fly," said Russ Curtis, a spokesman for the organization in San Francisco.
The group has not yet sent any of the pelicans to labs for necropsies, because it has been inundated with the task of taking care of the arriving birds, he said.
There have been past incidents of California brown pelicans being sickened by domoic acid, a toxin produced at times by algae. It enters the food chain when fish eat the algae.
Curtis said, however, that the famished birds so far don't show the neurological problems typical of domoic acid outbreaks, such as spasms or inability to hold their heads up.
"It's still a mystery," he said.
Pelicans are normally seen flying in formations, sometimes gliding just above the ocean surface. To feed, they circle high above the water to spot prey and then dramatically dive to catch fish with their long bills.