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Pelican Rescuers' Job Not Done Yet

Wildlife: Despite recovery and release of many, hundreds of birds felled by botulism remain in rehab, and more volunteers are needed.


IRVINE — At first glance, it looks like a stable, this dimly lit, block-walled space with its concrete floors and long rows of barred doors.

But behind each door sit brown pelicans, two or three to a stall, hundreds in all, with gleaming eyes, sculpted bills, curvaceous necks, feathers slick from their morning shower.

This is "Pelican Hall," chief hospital ward in the massive rescue effort to save hordes of rare brown pelicans felled by a much-publicized botulism outbreak this summer and fall at the Salton Sea.

The struggle to save the pelicans goes on in Orange County, fueled by a cadre of hard-working volunteers with the Pacific Wildlife Project. The nonprofit group based in Laguna Niguel has worked closely with government agencies in hope of nursing ailing pelicans back to health.

Some have wearied of the work, but many others still visit Pelican Hall daily, tugging on rubber boots and reaching for the hoses. Their chores include cage cleanups, bird cleanups and daily feedings of 300 pounds of silvery anchovies to voracious birds.

The payoff: Such efforts may be protecting as many as 5% of all the brown pelicans in California--and that, volunteers say, makes the drudgery worthwhile.

"I like the fact we can do something to save them," said Jim Robins, 53, of Huntington Beach, a former aerospace engineer who spends 25 hours a week at pelican work.

The rescue was sparked by a deadly outbreak of avian botulism that swept through the bird population at the Salton Sea, about 80 miles northeast of San Diego.

So far, the outbreak has killed a total of 13,844 birds spanning 61 species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It ravaged the population of brown pelicans, an endangered species that had barely survived the chemical threat of the pesticide DDT.

Before this summer's outbreak, about 5,000 to 6,000 breeding pairs of brown pelicans lived in California.

Now carcasses of more than 1,100 brown pelicans have been counted at the Salton Sea, and experts estimate that botulism has killed from 10% to 15% of the western United States population.

The Pacific Wildlife Project has a long history of rehabilitating pelicans but never has it tried to save so many in so short a time.

In all, more than 800 pelicans have been transported to Orange County, the weakest cared for at the project headquarters in Laguna Niguel, the stronger birds graduating to Pelican Hall, a spare building loaned by the Irvine animal care center. The building's 59 kennels have proven a boon for the rehabilitation effort.

Companies have donated food and other equipment for the pelicans, which together can eat $250 to $300 in food in a single day.

Many birds died en route or during their first two days in Orange County. But of the remaining birds, more than 90% have survived, said Richard Evans, medical director for the Pacific Wildlife Project and Orange County's veterinarian.

"That was beyond our wildest expectations. It's damned good," Evans said.

Pelican protectors celebrated when the first of the rejuvenated brown pelicans were released at Seal Beach on Sept. 19.

But the rescue is far from done. Although more than 170 recovered pelicans have been released to date, hundreds more remain in rehabilitation in Irvine and Laguna Niguel, and some may not be ready for release until mid-December.

And even as media interest has faded, donations have dropped and the ranks of workers have thinned.

The project could use some new volunteers willing to aid the remaining pelicans, Evans said.

However, this is no job for those who prefer their pelicans in glossy-paged wildlife books. Volunteers may have their hands bit by razor-billed birds or go home to discover, even after a hot shower, that fish scales have stuck to their skin.

"They need to understand this is not play-with-the-birds stuff. It's down-and-dirty work," said Evans on Tuesday as he surveyed the feathered residents of Pelican Hall.

Still, workers keep returning to Pelican Hall, some donating their vacation days to the effort.

Said Evans: "I keep telling them no. They keep saying yes."

More information about the Pacific Wildlife Project is available by calling (714) 831-1178.

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