A young pelican stands among the empty kennels after being released by Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue at Lawson's Landing, at Dillon Beach, on Thursday, September 8, 2011. The birds had been treated at International Bird Rescue, in Fairfield.

Rescuers release birds, but rehab center overwhelmed this summer

After weeks of hospitalization and an hour in a stuffy van en route to the ocean, 19 pelicans, cormorants and sea gulls happily popped out of their dog-kennel enclosures Thursday and back into the lives they were meant to live.

To whoops of joy from their Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue Center handlers, the rehabilitated sea birds were released into nature's hands from Dillon Beach and Lawson's Landing.

"This is so cool!" said Doris Duncan, the center's executive director, as the first gulls took flight. "Oh, look, they're testing their little wings."

The gulls cautiously approached water's edge before taking off, while the cormorants quickly took to the air and then paddle-landed in the water nearby.

The six large brown pelicans took their time, looking back at the rescue team before launching and then circling back to hang out on a pier.

The population of California brown pelicans, until two years ago an endangered species that survived insecticide poisoning in the 1960s, has rebounded — so much so that more human interaction has caused problems for both sides.

The six returned to the wild on Thursday are among hundreds that have turned up injured, sick or starving along the California coast this summer. Scientists haven't determined what is causing the distress among the birds.

Some have been found with injuries from fish hooks or fishing tackle, but some are just not getting enough to eat.

"The majority are juvenile brown pelicans. They're starving and nobody knows why," Duncan said. "They're begging from piers and sometimes getting injured."

Local wildlife rescuers have been helping those at the International Bird Rescue facility in Fairfield, which has been overwhelmed with pelicans this summer.

The center has admitted more than 220 brown pelicans since June 1, most from the Monterey area. The center has 76 there currently.

"They come in emaciated, which means they're starving to death," Duncan said. "We really don't know why they are starving and why they're not doing well."

The birds are given fluids and assistance until they are able to eat again.

About six weeks ago, the rescue facility center called Sonoma County rescuers for help. Local volunteers have been helping every day at the Fairfield site and Thursday accompanied the large brood on the final steps of rehab.

"Boy, are they happy," said Donna LaBarbera of Arkansas, who was visiting the coast with family on Thursday and watched the release. "Some of them looked like they didn't want to leave. When they first walked out, that was quite a sight."

California brown pelicans almost died out in the late 1960s after exposure to the now-banned insecticide DDT caused their eggshells to thin, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since being listed as endangered species in 1970, the species recovered with conservation efforts. In 2009, the species was removed from the endangered category, meaning it is no longer in danger of extinction.

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