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The brown pelican crisis of 2024 is here

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Bars, businesses, even a Major League Baseball game over the weekend. Brown pelicans are showing up in unusual places in California. Here's a clip from the San Francisco Giants' X, or Twitter, account.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: There is a bird in short left center who's suddenly become a star. Here she goes, taking off, kind of flying low right by Tyler Fitzgerald.

KELLY: OK, but here's the thing. Over the last few weeks, brown pelicans have been found emaciated, anemic. What is going on is a brown pelican crisis, and no one knows exactly what is causing it. Dr. Elizabeth Wood is one of the people caring for these starving birds. She's a veterinarian and medical director at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, Calif. Dr. Wood, welcome.

ELIZABETH WOOD: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: I want to start with just what these poor birds look like. By the time they make it to your center, what kind of condition are they in?

WOOD: They are arriving in a very poor body condition overall. So many of them are at about half of the normal weight for a brown pelican.

KELLY: What is the normal weight for a brown pelican?

WOOD: Their normal weight is usually around 4 kilograms.

KELLY: OK.

WOOD: So they're coming in closer to 2 1/2 kilograms at this point.

KELLY: Right. And how many of these sick pelicans are we talking? How many has your center seen?

WOOD: We've had over 200 intakes. Right now we have over a hundred in care. When we were first getting these birds before the public knew what was going on, they were coming into care in a much more advanced state of emaciation and starvation. And thankfully, as the publicity has improved about what's going on, the public has been calling their local animal controls and getting them into care faster. And we've found that the prognosis is much improved the faster they come into care.

KELLY: OK, so this is something that people are really tracking and keeping their eyes out for birds who may need some help.

WOOD: Yeah. So basically, the faster they come into care, the better their prognosis because what we're finding is when they first come in, they are extremely hypothermic. So their waterproofing is broken. We are basically initiating heat support right on intake. And if they survive that first few hours of trying to stabilize hypothermia, then they tend to survive the rest of supportive care.

KELLY: OK, so what is going on? I said when I introduced you nobody knows what's causing this. But what are the theories? What kind of clues are you following?

WOOD: Unfortunately, we don't know yet. There are plenty of fish out there. They just don't seem to be able to get them. So the cause could be changing ocean currents. It could be the storm surges that we were having and winds that we were having a few weeks ago that are changing the location of the fish in the water column, perhaps, such that the pelicans can't get to it. And the preliminary testing that is being done by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is not showing evidence of highly pathogenic avian influenza or domoic acid toxicity or anything else definitive yet at this time.

KELLY: Just so mystifying. I want to leave people on a note of beauty, if that's possible with a sad story. Just for people who might not know, why are brown pelicans important to California, to the coast, to the culture there?

WOOD: California - one of our iconic species is the brown pelican. It's such an iconic image to see a big brown pelican flying over the beautiful, dramatic California coastline. We've loved seeing their numbers rise back from a very threatened status to thriving now. So it's particularly devastating for us to see them in this kind of state. They're one of my absolute favorite species to work with. And so we're just doing everything that we possibly can to save each individual one.

KELLY: Dr. Elizabeth Wood of the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in California. Dr. Wood, thank you.

WOOD: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure speaking with you today, and thanks for bringing attention to this issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.