The brown pelicans fighting for scraps around fish-cleaning stations in Bodega Bay are a clear sign of a natural food shortage in the ocean for the growing numbers of the majestic bird.
"There are an unusual number," said Rick Powers, who runs charter fishing trips. "We are seeing stuff we have not seen in years past. They seem aggressive and they are almost starving."
At times at Bodega Bay's Westside Regional Park, pelicans converge in a feeding frenzy when fishermen clean their salmon.
"It is very unusual," said Sonoma County Parks Ranger James MacMillan. "We are doing our part by posting 'do not feed' signs. Unfortunately several have died, and we have had bird rescue out here. We are also trying to keep Dumpsters closed so the pelicans don't get trapped there."
Wildlife scientists say the mortality rate of young pelicans is naturally high as the inexperienced birds compete with each other and with adult pelicans for bait fish in the ocean.
This year, however, the population of brown pelicans is very large while their food, anchovies and sardines, has declined dramatically, said Bill Sydeman of Petaluma, president of the Farallon Institute for Ecological Research.
"It is a recipe for disaster," Sydeman said.
Brown pelicans nest on 10 islands off the coast of Southern California and Mexico beginning in February, then migrate along the coast as far north as the Gulf of Alaska beginning in June.
Ungainly on the ground, they are graceful in the air as they dive from 40 feet into the ocean to scoop up their prey.
"They are big, they are beautiful and they have gorgeous eyes," said Michelle Bellizzi of the International Bird Rescue Center in Fairfield. "They have air sacs in their bodies to cushion the force as they dive. When you hold them they feel like they are made of bubble wrap. They are really super-cool birds."
In the 1960s, only 1,000 nesting pairs were counted, prompting the federal government to put the brown pelican on the endangered species list in 1970.
By 2007, however, following the ban of the pesticide DDT, 70,680 nesting pairs were counted. As a result of the rebound, the bird was taken off the endangered list in 2009.
Now, large numbers of young, weak and ill-appearing brown pelicans are being found on California beaches and on piers, said Esther Burkett, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game in Sacramento.
"There is an influx of the young ... everybody is on the coast now, because they are done nesting. They are weak and acting abnormal, standing around, begging for fish," Burkett said.
Burkett believes it is a combination of the large population of birds and the decline of the fish in the ocean upon which they normally feed.
The pelicans are being injured by becoming entangled in fishing line, getting into bait boxes that can damage their waterproof coating, eating fish scraps that stick in their throats and being trapped in Dumpsters.
Bellizzi said the bird rescue center in Fairfield is caring for 130 brown pelicans. A dozen of those were injured when they went into a Dumpster after fish scraps at Westside Regional Park.
"What we have been seeing all up and down the coast is that we are getting in large numbers of juvenile pelicans that are starving, and they are getting in trouble with fishermen, getting caught in fish line, getting into fish bait boxes," Bellizzi said.
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