Jul 19, 2012

Adding insult to injury

Young pelican with fish carcass lodged in throat.
As wildlife rescuers contend with hundreds of young starving brown pelicans stranding along the coast of California due to starvation, another problem has surfaced - fish oil.

This is impairing already weakened young pelicans and hampering rescue efforts.

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.
The oil is coming from fish cleaning stations - usually found at boat ramps and piers. Runoff from cleaning tables is typically allowed to drip onto the ground or into the water. When pelicans and other birds crowd around these stations, looking for handouts, they can become showered in fish juice - a serious problem, even fatal.

A bird’s waterproofing allows it to stay warm and dry. Like shingles on a roof, it is the structure of a bird’s feathers, and their alignment, that keep cold air and water from penetrating to the skin. When something, like oil or dirty water, collapses the feather's structure, the bird becomes exposed to the elements. Severely coated birds will be unable to float or fly.

To gain back their weatherproofing, birds must be washed - a very labor-intensive task. After being captured, they are treated for exposure, fed and strengthened before undergoing a rigorous wash, then allowed to dry and recuperate before being released - often days later.

It’s just like an oil spill, but there’s no one to foot the bill.

Right now, Humboldt Wildlife Center is tending to over 100 fish-oiled and wet pelicans, and, just this week, dozens were found in Sonoma County. Native Animal Rescue, in Santa Cruz, has also received a number of wet birds.

This brings the total number of pelicans being treated at California’s few wildlife hospitals to about 500.

While it's not unusual to see fish-oil compromised birds from time to time throughout the year, it’s worse now because the young pelicans are starving - to death - so they are more attracted to bait docks and cleaning stations than ever. Pelicans are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of food sources where they can.

While some people take enjoyment out of seeing a pelican up close, some fishermen have become enraged and abusive. Rescuers have witnessed fishermen kicking pelicans and spraying them down with high-powered hoses. To injure a wild bird is a violation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, administrated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.
Another serious problem - also related to fishing, is pelicans getting discarded fish carcasses stuck in their throats.

When pelicans gain access to scraps of fish - when lids to waste bins aren’t properly shut, or when people intentionally feed them, the bony masses become lodged in their throats. Spines and sharp bones can even puncture a pelican's soft pouch

Federal law requires facilities that operate businesses that might attract birds, to have mechanisms to prevent birds from gaining access to the attractant. For example, fish guts and scraps are supposed to be disposed of in dumpsters or barrels that have covers to keep birds out. It’s not a crime to leave a lid of a dumpster open, but when a bird is caught or impaired by it, then it becomes a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The few wildlife hospitals in California that are caring for the pelicans are in serious need of help. Please consider volunteering or sending donated supplies or contributions.

We have made it easy to donate. Money collected through our Pelican Aid fund will be distributed between the centers.

To report injured or ill pelicans call your local wildlife rescue facility. If you don't know the number, use our statewide hotline at 1-866-WILD-911.

To report possible violations of the MBTA, contact the nearest U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement.

Torrance, CA 310-328-1516 or Burlingame, CA 650-876-9078 and Sacramento, CA 916-414-6660


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this important work.

Kathleen said...

Seeing this at International Bird Rescue in Fairield and also Peninsula Humane Society in the Wildlife Dept. Ridiculous amounts of birds coming in right now. Bird Rescue is going through over 700 lbs. of fish a day. They need help financially to support the effort in saving these fabulous birds.