Emaciated Pelicans at WildCare

Emaciated Pelicans at WildCare

Wildlife experts up and down the California coast are concerned that Brown Pelicans are facing another "stranding event" like the one we saw in 2022.

That year, our partner organization International Bird Rescue (IBR) admitted over 350 emaciated pelicans, 19 of which passed through WildCare's doors. 

Just this week, WildCare has admitted eight Brown Pelicans, which is about the number we usually admit over the course of a year! IBR and other wildlife care centers along the coast have admitted hundreds of emaciated pelicans of all ages since April 20th. Some are tangled in fishing line, many are found in odd locations far from the coast, and all are clearly starving. 

What is happening? We don't yet know. 

It is fairly normal for wildlife care centers to admit juvenile Brown Pelicans. First-year youngsters may have not yet mastered the difficult high dive that these birds use to catch their fish, so many of them do get very hungry or even die of starvation before they figure out the technique. It's also not uncommon for pelicans that are starving to become entangled in fishing line when their desperate attempts to find food bring them into contact with fishermen. Other injuries also result from frantic birds trying to get food.

But the birds being admitted in the last couple of weeks are of all ages, which implies that the problem is rooted in the availability of fish, not with the skill and experience of the pelicans.

The pelican in the video below was one of the first pelicans we admitted to WildCare during this event. He arrived on May 2, 2024 after bystanders saw him acting strangely on Point San Pedro Road in San Rafael.

His intake records say that he was dehydrated, thin and depressed on intake.

WildCare Medical Staff started the bird on a regular schedule of tube-feedings of a specialized slurry for emaciated fish-eating animals called "Piscivore Care." Emaciated animals should not be given solid food because their systems can't yet handle it.

After a few days on the "emaciation protocol", this pelican is able to eat actual fish. In this video, he finally figures out that there are indeed fish in the bowl in front of him (and also one beside his foot!)

Caring for Emaciated Pelicans

These emaciated birds arrive at the Wildlife Hospital thin and chilled to the bone. Normally, WildCare provides stabilizing care for pelican patients, and then we call one of our wonderful Transport Volunteers to bring the bird to International Bird Rescue (IBR) in Fairfield, CA which specializes in water birds. IBR has a massive aviary with pools that allows them to successfully rehabilitate hundreds of pelicans every year; WildCare simply doesn't have that kind of space for such large aquatic birds.

But IBR has been absolutely inundated with emaciated pelicans from along the California coast, and they have requested we keep these time-intensive-to-care-for birds at WildCare as long as possible.

To make this possible, WildCare has had to tarp off half of one of our raptor aviaries to create a heated zone for these pelicans, complete with heating lamps to provide extra warmth. Utilizing this space for pelicans has our Medical Staff very concerned because we are also in the middle of baby season for hawks and owls (and all wildlife!) and that space is in high demand for other Wildlife Hospital patients!

How Can You Help Pelicans Right Now?

When an emaciation event like this happens, all of the local wildlife care centers work together to get care for as many animals as possible.

Emaciated pelicans may end up in unusual places, even quite far inland, so we ask everyone to keep an eye out and recognize that a sea-going bird like a pelican probably should not be in, say, in a grocery store parking lot! Emaciated pelicans will appear lethargic and listless

If you see a pelican in an unusual spot, he probably needs help. Call WildCare's Hotline at 415-456-7283 for assistance and advice. If you're not near WildCare in Northern California, we recommend you download the AnimalHelpNow app or visit them online at https://ahnow.org/ to find your local wildlife care center. 

Definitely call for advice before attempting to rescue a pelican. The best thing you can do is to contact local authorities (call WildCare for assistance or use the AnimalHelpNow app) and set up a six-foot perimeter to keep people away from the bird until help arrives. The bird will be stressed and distressed, so minimizing contact is always best. 

Photo by Marianne Hale

If you are instructed to rescue the pelican yourself, PLEASE be aware of some considerations when handling these large birds:

  • First of all, protect yourself. Make sure that you have eye protection and ideally gloves to protect your hands. As mentioned above, even an emaciated pelican can use his large beak to defend himself.
  • To rescue the pelican, throw a large towel or a sheet over the bird, lift him up, and hold him against the side of your body like a football.
  • Pelicans do not have nares (nostrils) so DO NOT HOLD THE PELICAN'S BEAK CLOSED. This will suffocate the bird. If you are controlling the bird's head using the large beak, you must place two fingers between top and bottom sections of the beak to allow him to breathe. As mentioned in the video above, the beak is sharp and may cause small cuts like paper cuts.
  • Place the bird in a large box or carrier. Do not wrap the bird tightly in towels or blankest, as it's easy to cause overheating.
  • Please do NOT feed the pelican. Do not give him fish or ANY food. If the bird is emaciated, solid will kill him. Upon intake at WildCare, our team will begin the process of rehydrating the bird and starting him on the elemental diet that will restart his digestive system. Even before offering the easily-digestible slurry that is part of our emaciation protocol, we will check his blood and gently warm the bird to raise his body temperature to the level where his body will be able to digest food. Proper protocols must be followed if the bird is going to survive.
  • Bring the bird to WildCare or your closest wildlife care center immediately. Call WildCare for advice at 415-456-7283.


Donate to Help WildCare Help Pelicans

These large birds have voracious appetites and their care is complicated and extremely time-intensive!

Please donate now to WildCare to help us meet this challenge!