Seemingly hesitant at first, 16 brown pelicans waddled into San Francisco Bay before taking flight Wednesday, freed after recovering from maladies ranging from malnutrition to being entangled in fishing lines.

"Absolutely wonderful," said Michelle Bellizzi, executive director of International Bird Rescue Center, seeing the birds fly off over the bay. "A lot of time and care goes into them."

All but two of the brown pelicans were fledglings, less than a year old, and among the 450 brown pelicans that are being treated at rescue centers in Fairfield and Los Angeles.

They were released Wednesday at Fort Baker near Sausalito.

Brown pelicans are suffering from a severe shortage of their natural food, sardines and anchovies, at the same time their population is booming, causing the fledglings to compete with adults for food.

"There are pelicans galore around the mouth of the bay and in the bay," Bellizzi said. "We chose that spot because it is a central location, they can hook up with the adults, with birds that are doing well, so they can learn from the professionals how to get by."

Brown pelicans nest on 10 islands off the coast of Southern California and Mexico beginning in February, then feed on anchovies and sardines as they migrate up the coast to the Gulf of Alaska.

Brown pelicans were placed on the endangered species list in 1970, when only 1,000 nesting pairs were counted, but were taken off in 2007 after reports of the population growing to 70,680 pairs.

Now, because of a shortage of food, many of the majestic birds are seen hanging around wharves and fighting for scraps of fish, getting trapped in Dumpsters or entangled in fishing lines, and suffering from starvation.

There are 150 brown pelicans at the Fairfield center alone, but most of them will survive and be released back to the wild, Bellizzi said.

"They can bounce back from the brink of nothing, they are hardy animals," Bellizzi said. "They are fantastic healers."

The 16 that were released had recovered from problems ranging from malnutrition to being caught on fish hooks or having fish scraps caught in their throats.

The birds were brought in from Bodega Bay, the Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz areas and the Richmond dump.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or