By the hundreds they've been treated and cared for at specialty rehabilitation centers.

But what happens to the sick or injured California brown pelicans once they're set free again? What are their chances for surviving back out in the wild?

Researchers are hoping an ongoing survey of the pelicans treated at California's bird rehabilitation centers will provide them with a better glimpse into how the birds fare -- and where they go -- once they are released.

"We've put a lot of time and money into these birds," said Jay Holcomb, director of the nonprofit International Bird Rescue that operates a facility in San Pedro. "We wanted to know if they're surviving."

Some of the California brown pelicans head north for the winter -- not south like most other birds.

Twelve Brown Pelicans make their way back into the wild in August 2013 at Royal Palms State Beach in San Pedro after they were rehabilitated by
Twelve Brown Pelicans make their way back into the wild in August 2013 at Royal Palms State Beach in San Pedro after they were rehabilitated by International Bird Rescue. One of the pelicans darts out of the cage as center manager Julie Skoglund holds back the door. (Photo by Steve McCrank/Staff Photographer)
Many have been found as far north as British Columbia, according to study results.

It was known that many of them fed along the Oregon and Washington coasts, but learning that the young pelicans flew so far north so quickly after they were released was a surprise, Holcomb said.

Beyond that, tracking the birds -- 1,050 have been tagged with bright blue bands over the past three years -- is also giving rescuers a better idea of where and why the birds encounter injury and trouble.

Both San Pedro and Redondo Beach have been flagged as problem areas for the birds that once were on the state's endangered list and are still protected by law.

"What excites everyone involved is knowing the history of the birds, which before this band study was difficult to impossible," Holcomb said.


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He points out the example of the pelican known as "P16." The bird was treated for fishing tackle injuries at the Northern California center and then released Dec. 10 in Sausalito.

The pelican was spotted five days later, still in Sausalito, but then sighted and photographed on Dec. 22 in San Pedro by nature photographer and San Pedro resident Bernardo Alps.

"That is pretty amazing," Holcomb said of the bird's travels.

The injury hazards that pelicans face include fishing tackle, fish oil from public and commercial fish processing stations and sea lion bites.

And behind all of that, essentially, is human behavior.

As people feed and overfeed the pelicans at fish-processing facilities, their feathers can become covered with excess fish oil. With pouches filled as they hit the ocean, they also can draw sea lions that can cause injury as they pick up the scent of food.

"Pelicans get very (acclimated) to people," Holcomb said. "If there's a free handout, they're in there. ... It's all preventable."

The sightings of the tracked birds, he said, "show us where this is happening."

To raise awareness of the tracking project, the International Bird Center held a contest late last year to see who could spot the most pelicans (San Pedro's Alps won the contest).

California brown pelicans have been turning up in the rehabilitation centers in growing numbers over the past several years.

In 2012, a record was set with 950 of the birds entering both the Northern and Southern California centers, with 600 of those going through the San Pedro facility located in Angels Gate Park.

Currently, the San Pedro facility is treating about 30 California brown pelicans, Holcomb said, which is about normal for this time of year.

In prolific breeding seasons, newly hatched birds are unable to find food on their own and have been found weak and starving. Others sustain fishing hook injuries.

While the pelicans have rebounded after a "population crash" in the late 1960s from the effects of DDT in the environment, they remain closely watched by naturalists.

Hundreds of the majestic seabirds were treated for what was a starvation crisis in 2004 and 2010. They've also been affected by domoic acid poisoning and botulism.

Pelicans are a common sight around fishing piers as the opportunistic feeders dive-bomb fresh catches or wait for people to offer them a morsel or two.

Once in rehabilitation, the birds consume great amounts of food, which also costs the centers, which operate on donations.

Holcomb said results of the study have buoyed the belief that the rehabilitated pelicans do well once they are released. 

"We are very encouraged," he said. "We do get reports on some that die, but many of those have survived way past their rehabilitation and die from other causes."

The study will continue into 2013, with all treated California brown pelicans now being released with the easy-to-spot blue bands.

"This is the positive of our work, the payoff," he said. "These birds have made incredible journeys."


donna.littlejohn@dailybreeze.com
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