The Pelican Brief: Stories of Survivability

P20 has been sighted multiple times in Southern California
P20 has been sighted multiple times in Southern California

Sightings of our banded rehabilitated pelicans are always informative, bringing us new clues about their travels and survivability in the wild. Here are a few recent stories from the pelican sighting files.

Pelican P20 and young birds on the fringe of their range

Why do pelicans become habituated to piers, fisherman and fishing areas?

Brown Pelicans are predators, and young pelicans have to learn quickly how to catch their prey (fish) in order to survive. It’s trial-and-error at first, but while they are learning to hunt and care for themselves they create what is called a mental and behavioral “tool kit.” This tool kit consists of all the techniques and strategies they have discovered that produce fish. Watching the activities of fish-eating mammals such as dolphins and whales is a learned behavior. Following fishing boats back into port after a day’s catch, learning how to watch tides and observing where other fish-eating birds are foraging are all techniques learned that help localize a meal.

Young pelicans are very impressionable during their first year because they don’t have a great fear of people. Have you ever watched fishermen casting their lines from a pier? You will see them reeling in lines with wiggling, sparkling fish. Pelicans and other birds are opportunistic and think that any wiggling fish coming out of the water is theirs for the taking. Piers loaded with fishermen hauling in multiple fish on multiple lines attract pelicans and become feeding grounds for pelicans who don’t know better. They learn quickly that people + piers = food. This becomes another usable tactic in their took kit, but it’s a dangerous one that can also lead to injuries from getting hooked or tangled in fishing line.

Like P20, young pelicans that become habituated to people and fishing piers are at a great disadvantage. This is why we always say, “NEVER FEED PELICANS” or any wild animal. Feeding can produce very unhappy endings for these pelicans that are not able to discern a well-meaning fisherman from one who wants no part of a pelican stealing his or her catch. Follow P20’s movement down the California coastline via this Google Map

View Brown Pelican P20’s Movement in a larger map

M32 Brown Pelican is demonstrating the similar exploratory nature of young birds.
 M32 is demonstrating the similar exploratory nature of young birds.


Brown Pelican M32

Like California Brown Pelicans R36 and R41 that migrated to Victoria, B. C. last fall, M32 is demonstrating the similar exploratory nature of young birds born into a viable population that sometimes move to the fringe of their range in search of food and good habitat. In some cases this works for them, but often these birds die or retreat to safer and more food-abundant areas within their range. R36 did not fly south when the weather turned very cold in Victoria when R41 and the other adult pelicans in the area left. R36 would have died in the cold had it not been rescued. M32 seems to have found a niche in the northern inland part of the San Francisco Bay, representing a young pelican on the fringe of its territory.

Pelican 0938-61101

A friend of IBR and last year’s Blue-Banded Pelican Contest adult winner, Bernardo Alps, spotted pelican 0938-61101 hanging out at the dumpsters at the Ports O’ Call Marketplace in San Pedro, Calif. He noticed this bird was very dirty and not behaving normally. The pelican was captured and found to be covered with fish oil and oily waste from a fish-processing site. Once at our San Pedro center, it was washed to remove the oiling and now has an excellent chance of survival.

Fish oil contamination occurs when pelicans feed at commercial and public fish-processing sites. They can easily become covered in oily fish waste and water as they try to retrieve fish scraps. Dirty feathers from fish oil make the birds wet and cold just like any other oil does. When an oily pelican that is no longer waterproof attempts to plunge feed into the ocean for fish, it’s at risk of cold water reaching its skin, which can result in hypothermia. If an oiled pelican can still fly but is unable to feed in cold water, the bird may become a dumpster diver and beggar, as this is its only way to safely secure a meal and avoid becoming too cold. That’s what we assumed happened to pelican 0938-61101. It was staying alive by feeding in the Ports O’ Call dumpsters on fish scraps and other trash.

Pelican 0938-61101 was previously treated in our San Pedro center in November 2006 for injuries sustained from fishing line. Seven years after her first release from care, this bird will soon be flying freely again sporting a new silver federal band and a highly visible blue plastic band on her leg to track her further travels.

0938-61101: Dirty Brown Pelican coated in fish oil, left, and after cleaning, right, at our Los Angeles Center.
0938-61101: Dirty Brown Pelican coated in fish oil, left, and after cleaning, right, at our Los Angeles Center.

Update, June 13:

Upon successful rehabilitation, a previously fish-oiled Brown Pelican was released Wednesday in the San Pedro area. Photos of the bird and the release below at Cabrillo Beach by Julie Skoglund. 

This pelican first came into our San Pedro center on 11/2/2006 as a first-year bird with fishing tackle injuries. Since its release, it has been reported two other times in San Pedro on 12/18/2008 and on 1/2/2013. Captured fish-oiled on 5/5/13, the bird was rehabilitated and released on 6/12/13. Its new band number is now V01.