SANTA ANA, Calif. – Pelicans suffering from a mysterious malady are crashing into cars and boats, wandering along roadways and turning up dead by the hundreds across the West Coast, from southern Oregon to Baja California, Mexico, bird rescue workers say.

Many of the birds die of the illness; some recover and are released. While some of the symptoms resemble those associated with domoic acid poisoning – an ocean toxin that sometimes affects sea birds and mammals – other symptoms do not. Domoic acid also apparently has not been found in significant amounts offshore, rescuers said, although more tests are needed.

“These birds are on the freeway, getting run over,” said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the rescue center in San Pedro. “A bunch we’ve seen have been hit. They’ve been landing on yards five miles inland. When some of the people have captured them in parking lots, they just sit in the corner. They just go pick them up.”

Eight of the troubled birds were being cared for Tuesday at the care center in Huntington Beach.

“They’re coming in very weak, very dehydrated, emaciated,” veterinarian Erin Hogan said. “One came in just laying down, still breathing.”

Many of the birds also have swollen feet.

Rescuers are wondering whether the illness is caused by a virus, or even by contaminants washed into the ocean after recent fires.

Heather Nevill, a veterinarian tracking the problem for the International Bird Rescue Research Center, said the malady could be anything from disease to a suite of converging, harmful environmental conditions.

“Maybe the weather has been particularly difficult on them,” Nevill said. “Maybe the fish stocks are particularly low. It might be more than one thing, all coming together at once.”

The group is working with California Fish and Game wildlife veterinarian Pamela Swift, who said she is trying to obtain fresh carcasses so samples can be sent laboratories for analysis. Results could come by next week.

Occasional disoriented birds are not unusual, the rescuers said. Young pelicans also often turn up starving or debilitated.

But the pelicans appearing along California shores are adult birds, and the sheer number of them is highly unusual, rescuers and veterinarians said.

“This year, quite a few adult birds are coming in starving,” Nevill said. “That’s not typical.”

Dmytryk put the situation in starker terms.

“I’ve been rescuing wildlife on the California coast since 1981,” she said. “And I’ve never seen anything like this.”



(c) 2009, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-06-09 2031EST


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