The first bird appeared in September 2019.
A brown pelican arrived at International Bird Rescue in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles with severe injuries: straight slashes on both sides of its pouch that continued to the back of its head, leaving the bird’s neck exposed.
Since then, four more brown pelicans with similar injuries have been treated by the organization, said Rebecca Duerr, its director of research and veterinary science, and the injuries “have been progressively more horrible.”
“With each bird, it seems more and more likely that this was not possibly something naturally occurring,” Ms. Duerr said. “I can imagine a lot of bad things happening, but I can’t imagine any way that this would happen without somebody doing it on purpose.”
Because brown pelicans, which are abundant on California beaches, plunge-dive for food from 50 feet above the water, the most common injuries come from fish hooks or boat propellers, which leave irregular jagged cuts. But “even if you plunge-dove on a straight-up machete,” Ms. Duerr said, “it wouldn’t cause this kind of damage.”
Since the first injured pelican appeared in 2019, others have appeared with similar injuries about once a quarter, in April, June, September and, most recently, on Dec. 15. Three of the birds were found in or near Marina del Rey, and the other two in Ventura Harbor.
The recovery process for the birds takes two to three months, Ms. Duerr said, adding that it seemed as if just when one had recovered, another was brought in. Three of the birds were released back into the wild, while one other — the one captured on Dec. 15 — was euthanized and one died of a fungal infection.
The similarity between the injuries, as well as the seemingly precise cuts, have led International Bird Rescue to believe that it may be a case of animal cruelty, Ms. Duerr said.
“Pelicans are thought of by some people as being pests,” Ms. Duerr said, rather than a “wonderful wild animal,” because they gravitate toward food and often land on boats while trying to catch the same fish as the fishermen. “Some people see wild animals that eat the same fish that people eat as stealing the person’s fish, when people have a choice over what to eat, and pelicans don’t.”
The use of DDT, the first modern synthetic insecticide, from the 1940s through the 1960s to combat mosquitoes that carried malaria and typhus, wreaked havoc on populations of brown pelicans and other birds in the Channel Islands off California, even after the chemical was banned in the 1970s. The contamination caused the birds’ eggshells to thin and break when they tried to brood them.
Brown pelicans were on the federal endangered species list until 2009, and even after that, they experienced breeding failures caused by a decreased food supply, Ms. Duerr said.
The brown pelican remains a “fully protected bird,” said Capt. Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s law enforcement division, and harming them violates both California and federal laws.
“You can’t harm pelicans,” he said. “You can’t catch them. You can’t hunt them. You can’t shoot them. You can’t do things like this.”
The agency is taking the allegations seriously, he added, but has not yet started a formal investigation because of a lack of leads.
“We’ve got to have some more pieces to put together before we can call it an investigation,” Captain Foy said. “If we have any reports of this kind of activity, we’re going to absolutely take it seriously, but we just have nothing to start with.”
Both organizations are urging the public to call the California Department of Fish and Wildlife tip line at 888-334-2258 with any information or if they witness someone trying to capture or harm a pelican.
“You don’t harm pelicans in California without somebody calling 911,” Captain Foy said. That would be very difficult to get away with,” he said.
The public has been participating in observation of the birds since 2009, when International Bird Rescue began tagging the birds it treated with numbered blue bands and asking anyone who spotted one to report the sighting. The first bird that was treated in September 2019 was spotted by a bird-watcher near San Luis Obispo, Calif., in July.
Pelicans are “smart, long-lived, prehistoric, cool birds” that are “super fun to watch,” Ms. Duerr said. “And if people see other people harming them, call your local animal control or game and fish department or whatever it is. It’s a crime everywhere.”