The “fun in the sun” lifestyle that Southern California is known for apparently no longer applies to the region’s seabirds, many of which are disappearing at an alarming rate. New reports indicate that the vast majority of California pelicans have simply stopped reproducing, with less than 1 percent of the usual number of baby pelicans turning up for the season.
Between 80 and 90 percent of Southern California’s brown pelicans hail from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, which abuts California’s southern border. The birds typically breed here in the tens of thousands and travel north, making their homes along the coast. But this year, very few baby pelicans emerged from the peninsula, a phenomenon that seasoned professor Dan Anderson says is unusual.
“It’s been almost a nearly complete failure to breed, which is quite unusual actually,” stated the instructor from the University of California at Davis to 89.3 KPCC. “At one island that we study, Isla Salvatierra, which would normally have 8,000-10,000 young, only had like 20 young,” he added.
Unsure as to what might be causing this lack of reproduction, some are speculating that depleted fish food sources, which include small fish like sardines and anchovies, may be responsible. Other areas where adult pelicans are actually swarming in higher-than-normal numbers reveal that many of them are just hanging out rather than nesting or rearing young, lending credence to this hypothesis.
Pelicans are known to populate many of the areas around the Salton Sea, for instance, after other smaller birds have had the chance to nest and move on. But this year, adult pelicans moved in early and took over, without reproducing. Thousands of non-reproducing adult pelicans have also swarmed the Malibu Lagoon area north of Los Angeles.
“I was just sort of flabbergasted at seeing 3,500 brown pelicans resting in Malibu Lagoon,” stated Dan Cooper, a biologist who monitors birds in the region, to 89.3 KPCC. “I checked my notes, and I have numbers in the hundreds, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Massive fish kills linked to Fukushima could be harming pelican reproduction
One explanation for the earlier-than-normal migration patterns of pelicans, as well as their lack of reproduction, is the potential for an El Nino climate event. El Nino is the name given to unusually warm ocean temperatures that occur in the Pacific every few years.
“This was the first time that a major El Nino event could be directly tied to these massive breeding failures,” stated Kimball Garrett, an ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum, to reporters. “It’s become clear that this can happen in many areas and not just that little narrow area along the equator.”
Another possibility is the dreaded Fukushima disaster, which may have been linked to numerous mass die-offs of ocean fish that occurred along the California coast over the past several years. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, tens of thousands of dead fish washed up in the Marina del Rey harbor, the second time such an event has occurred in the area since 2011.
These fish would normally have been food for hungry pelicans.
“It’s horrible,” stated area resident Lisa Lascody to KTLA 5 Local News about the more recent discovery of the dead fish. “There’s like a million dead anchovies floating around, as well as other fish. It’s creepy and weird.”