The latest mystery to hit the news is easily as confounding and unsolvable as the opening episode of FX’s Damages. So far, veterinarians from the International Bird Rescue Center (IBRRC) in California haven’t been able to find the cause of whatever it is that is sickening and killing the majestic California brown pelicans that live on the southern coast – many of which can be seen on the lightposts, docks and breakwaters of Long Beach – and the small number of clues they have so far led to locked doors.

The staff at the IBRRC facility in San Pedro now has over 75 sick pelicans in residence, with rescue volunteer crews bringing more in daily. The birds suffer from disorientation, hypothermia, weakness, starvation and weight loss that can extend to one-half their body weight, which ranges from 3 to 5 kilos. Sick birds have come in mainly from the coastline between Monterey, California and San Diego, but some have been found as far north as Humboldt County and others as far south as the Baja Peninsula. A Channel 2 Jan. 8 news report reported one found in the snow in New Mexico and another on an airport runway. Rebecca Dmytryk, founder of WildRescue and the California Wildlife Center in Malibu, is a member of IBRRC’s response team and is tracking information on lost or dead pelicans.

Antibiotics have no effect on the condition, and no positive connection can yet be made to usual suspects such as global warming or overpopulation. According to Julie King, rehabilitation manager at IBRRC, it is more unusual for adult pelicans to suffer from disorientation than it is for juveniles. She also said that the birds are being found in odd places such as backyards and on streets. All of these things, she said, indicate that something significant is going on.

IBRRC veterinarian Dr. Heather Nevill, DVM is leading the investigation into the cause of the illness. The investigation has found similarities between the birds’ symptoms and those of domoic acid poisoning outbreaks, which are caused by a neurotoxin produced by algae blooms. However, although domoic acid has been found in a number of the pelicans, the symptoms from the illnesses don’t completely line up; the toxin, according to the reports, may be acting as an accomplice at most.

“We believe these results are significant, but do not explain all the signs we are seeing in the pelicans,” Dr. Nevill said. “We are seeing a number of conditions that are not typical of domoic acid toxicity or a domoic acid event. Therefore, we are continuing to collect and test samples, keeping an open mind and considering all possibilities.”

“We’re experts at pelicans and other birds, but these birds are coming in with symptoms we haven’t seen anywhere in the world and we don’t know what’s causing them,” said Dave Weeshoof, volunteer and member of the board of directors.

Happily for the pelicans found early enough, tender loving care applied directly to the symptoms has been the only medicine that has so far worked. King said that the staff has been successful in helping the birds recover. During intake, the birds are stabilized right away. They are put into heated rooms to check the hypothermia and given oral fluids such as Ensure (there’s no sea bass flavor—we checked in Target). Their weight is measured, and blood samples are taken. After about 24 hours, the birds usually feel strong enough to gobble up fish in solid form. They are then put into one of the 100-foot-long aviaries, which serve as the rehab centers for aquatic fowl. King said that the pelicans are generally released after about a week, although additional injuries that they may have sustained from falling onto a wire or getting hit by a car affects the recovery time and may extend it up to a month, depending on the injury.

King and Erica Lander, the assistant rehabilitation manager, ask the public to help by calling (866) WILD-911 if they find pelicans in yards, streets or other places away from the coast. They also said to watch for pelicans who don’t run off if approached by a human. (Please don’t try to pick them up yourself. They may have a cuddly, noble resemblance to Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of a dodo in Alice in Wonderland, but woe be to you if you get between that bill and the rest of him. The rehab managers made it look easy, but they’re well-trained.)

More than anything, IBRRC needs help with funding. King said that the fish diet alone costs $40,000, and forgive us the groaner, but that’s a big bill. Visit the organization’s Web site to find out options for donation or becoming a Pelican Partner, as well as opportunities for aquatic bird education and long-term volunteering. Do whatever you can—for the sake of keeping the sight of those elegant birds in our coastal landscape as they plunge for their suppers or perch, bill against chest, on a tie rail; for our ocean environment, to clean up whatever is causing this illness; and for the pelicans themselves. Do what you can to close the book on this mystery.

Ah, what a bird is the pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
Ogden Nash