Some Notable Brown Pelican Cases From The 2022 Mass Stranding Event

Bird Rescue’s Dr. Rebecca Duerr performing surgery to repair various injuries on Brown Pelican #549. Assisting is  Kylie Clatterbuck, manager at the Los Angeles Wildlife Center. Photo: Arian Gastelum – International Bird Rescue

The recent mass stranding event of California Brown Pelicans has abated a bit, which gives me a chance to tell some stories about the birds. I only say “abated” because despite releasing them by the dozen, here at International Bird Rescue we are still receiving quite a few new pelicans each day and we still have well more than 100 in care! Since May 12, more than 325 new pelican patients have graced our two California wildlife centers, with the bulk of these birds stranding in Los Angeles County. Check out the numbers in the chart. So far, we have released 100 of them and will have dozens more ready to go soon.

When the flood of pelicans first began, most were starving, weak, and severely anemic. A normal Brown Pelican should have a hematocrit >40% (the percent of the blood volume made up by red blood cells), but most of these birds showed hematocrits of <20%, with many <15%. The vast majority of the birds were severely emaciated and dehydrated, and they were freezing cold because they were so weak that they could not maintain their body temperature. Due to the large number of birds presenting with this combination of potentially lethal problems, we had to focus on stabilizing patients with heat, fluids, and nutrients. We were not immediately able to treat many of the walking wounded.

Thankfully, most of the wounded birds were more medically stable than the starving birds, probably because their injuries allowed rescuers to find them before they had been down for very long. Fractured bones and severe injuries received immediate treatment, but birds with non-life-threatening minor and moderate wounds had to wait their turn. Here are a few notable cases from our large group of injured pelicans:

Brown Pelican 549: Wrist, Neck, and Esophagus Wounds from Fish Hooks

Brown Pelican 549 was treated with a variety of fishing tackle injuries. Photos: Dr Rebecca Duerr – International Bird Rescue

This pelican was rescued in Malibu with several injuries from one of those ‘faux fish’ fishing lures that have multiple treble hooks. One tore a hole in his esophagus, one punctured his left wrist, and the rest of the lure was still embedded in the left side of the back of his neck at arrival. He also was oiled, adding insult to injuries. We were so busy with new birds, I quickly gave the bird some pain medications, removed the remaining hook, and did a temporary repair to the esophagus so he could eat. This bird’s wounds later necessitated four separate surgical procedures, including placement of a drain to control the infection in the wrist. He also needed to be washed because of the oil.

Currently this lucky bird is off meds and out in our large flight aviary. Once we have fewer birds in care, we will be better able to fully assess whether this bird needs physical therapy before release. Recovery to perfect flight after a serious wrist injury can take some time.

Brown Pelican 690: Major Bill Injuries from Fish Hooks

Brown Pelican 690 sustained multiple injuries to its bill.

This second year male was stranded in Santa Barbara and suffering from severe injuries to both the upper and lower bills. The wounds were characteristic of what can happen when a large treble hook gets stuck in their mouth. One of the hook tines completely punctured the mandible bone, creating a window completely through the bone. Additionally, the upper bill (roof of the mouth) had a large area where the bone was a dead mess of necrotic bone shards with live arterial bleeding when the damaged area was touched. In many species these would have been non-survivable injuries, but pelicans are tough! We’ve been treating these as open wounds. The dead tissue has been removed and the bird is busily filling in the gaps with new healing tissue. Neither upper nor lower bills have fully broken to become unstable, but both halves need more time for healing before being ready to plunge dive for dinner again.

He is currently in our medical aviary (off camera) enjoying swimming, eating, and flying while his face heals. He must like the menu because he is among the heaviest pelicans we have, weighing in at 5.3 kg (11.6 lb).

Brown Pelican 562: Fledgling with Broken Leg

Brown Pelican 562 required orthopedic surgery and a fixator to set its broken leg.

During the early days of the event, this super-emaciated, anemic young bird was rescued in the Malibu area with a broken leg. I knew the crazy circumstances at our center in San Pedro were not going to be conducive to this bird having orthopedic surgery to repair the leg any time soon. Consequently, I arranged to do the surgery at our neighboring wildlife organization, California Wildlife Center, where the bird was being stabilized. After he woke up from the procedure, I drove him to San Pedro with me, where all he needed was simple post-op care and feeding, which was very doable. Since then, the leg pins have been removed and he is out in our large pelican aviary exercising to finish recovering from a mild residual limp. He should be headed to release soon.

Brown Pelican 562 is on the mend and will be released soon.

Brown Pelican 703: Pouch Laceration

Brown Pelican 703 arrived into care with a hole in its pouch.

Our fabulous volunteer Mary T. rescued this bird on May 24, when she visited one of Los Angeles’ public fishing piers to check on pelicans during the event. She saw that the bird had a hole in his pouch and was only able to eat by begging from the public, since fish would fall out if it didn’t land far enough back in his mouth to miss the hole. After a week of stabilizing care, this bird had surgery to repair the pouch. He healed well and only  two weeks later was released on June 17 in White Point Park in San Pedro with blue leg band Z62.

After sewing up the pouch tear, Brown Pelican 703 was released in San Pedro, CA with blue leg band Z62. A week later it was spotted hundreds of miles north in San Luis Obispo County.

Thanks to Mary and a few weeks in the hospital, Z62 was able to successfully go back to being a free and independent wild pelican. We celebrated again when a week later, this bird was re-sighted up at Shell Beach in San Luis Obispo County, resting with other pelicans.

Caring For Wildlife Takes A Village

These few birds are just a selection of the hundreds of pelicans that have passed through our hospitals in the past seven weeks. None of this care would be possible without everyone who cares about California’s wild birds, including animal control officers, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) personnel, colleagues at neighboring wildlife centers, plus our own staff, volunteers, and donors. Thank you to all!