What We Can Learn From Starving Pelicans
If you don’t live here on the West Coast, you probably haven’t heard about the pelicans. Hundreds of dead, starving and distressed pelicans have shown up on beaches from San Francisco Bay to Peugeot Sound. Here in Humboldt County, the animal rescue group Bird Ally X have now gone into crisis mode for the second time this year with another overwhelming influx of sick and injured pelicans.
Bird Ally X found most of the distressed pelicans around here suffering the same kinds of problems that birds caught in oil spills exhibit; oiled feathers compromising the bird’s natural insulation and waterproofing, leading to hypothermia and death. However, the oil in the birds’ feathers did not come from an oil spill, but from public fish-cleaning stations. A lot of sport fishermen use these cleaning stations to dress their catch before heading home, and the oily fish waste has become irresistible to the starving pelicans.
Pelicans have evolved over millions of years to catch small fish by diving into the water after them. Pelicans do not do very well on a diet of salmon heads, guts and bones, and the fish oil that pervades all of this fish waste, if it gets on their feathers, will do them in in a matter of hours. Please, support Bird Ally X and other groups now working frantically to feed, care for and rehabilitate literally hundreds of sick and injured pelicans, but recognize that starving seabirds is a bigger problem than these groups can solve.
This is not the first time starving seabirds have made headlines in recent years, but mostly, people seem to have gotten used to seeing dead birds scattered all over the beaches. The last time I went to the beach it looked like an avian Auschwitz, littered with dead gulls as far as the eye could see. This ain’t right folks. This is a symptom of something very serious.
In the news reports, they tell us that pelicans were once driven to the brink of extinction by the use of chemical pesticides like DDT, industrial pollution, and habitat loss, but the brown pelican has made a dramatic recovery in recent years and have again become common on the North Coast. They then explain that now that pelican populations have returned, there’s a lot more competition for food, so of course, some of them, mostly juveniles, starve.
That makes sense, right. Starving pelicans is not a tragedy. No, starving pelicans is a success story. These pelicans are only dying because there are too many pelicans, and there are too many pelicans because we’re just so damn good at wildlife conservation these days. Are you buying this?
Sure, pelicans have made a comeback, but consider this: 95% of the wild birds in the US have been wiped out. That includes pelicans. The few seabirds you see at the beach these days represent only a tiny fraction of historic populations. When Eureka was full of redwood trees, at least twenty times as many pelicans, gulls, cormorants, osprey, plovers, muriletts and who knows how many other species that have completely disappeared, made their homes around Humboldt Bay, and up and down the Lost Coast.
Today, as the ghastly scene playing out on North Coast beaches reveals, our coastal ecosystem no longer supports enough life to maintain even these diminished bird populations. Far from a success story, this tragedy reveals how badly we’ve failed at wildlife conservation, and how little we know about the marine ecosystem.
I see people at the beach, doing their best to ignore the horror show going on around them. It’s bad folks. It should bum you out. Beaches should be strewn with sea shells, not bird skeletons. Don’t try to blow it off with the speculation that this is some cyclical thing that just happens from time to time, like they did with global warming. This is what we have done to planet Earth. Face it.
Look into the eyes of those starving birds, surrounded by their dead kin. Feel their anguish, their desperation, and their courage, as their world falls apart around them. Learn what you can from them, because its going to happen to us too.