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A long-awaited flight

A dozen pelicans soar back to the ocean after nearly a month of treatment at the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington.

February 17, 2010|By Michael Miller

The L-shaped bundle was giving Kelly Beavers trouble as she maneuvered it carefully toward a plastic crate in the lab at the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach.

A pair of webbed feet began kicking under the white sheet that she cradled in her arms. A long beak, which Beavers gripped tightly with one hand, thrashed about as well. Looking around the crates, which had been manufactured for dogs but were housing pelicans Tuesday afternoon, she opted for one that was small enough to hold a single, hot-tempered bird.

“I want to put her in there, because she’s got an issue,” said Beavers, a wildlife technician at the center.

With the bird still fidgeting, Beavers eased it inside, then pulled off the sheet that had covered nearly its entire body and prevented it from seeing any of the humans present. An instant later, she locked the crate and draped the sheet over it. The 12 pelicans and one cormorant that were set to be released Tuesday in Corona del Mar had arrived at the center sick and starving, and the staff had spent the last two to three weeks nursing them back to health. Still, Beavers said, that didn’t quell the birds’ fear of people.

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“We’re considered predators toward them,” she said. “Every time they see us, they freak out. Notice, our eyes are on the front and theirs are not. To them, we’re predators and they’re prey.”

In this case, though, nothing could be further from the truth. With an epidemic of sick sea birds across the West Coast, centers like the one on Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach have been working since the start of the year to feed and rehabilitate the birds before returning them to the wild. Tuesday afternoon, it was time for 13 more to fly home.

An unexplained problem

Brown pelicans, which the federal government took off the endangered species list in November, have been a common — and alarming — sight along the coast since the start of January.

Centers across California and as far north as Oregon have been inundated with birds, often brought in by local animal control agencies, that are starving, injured or otherwise in need of treatment. Researchers have several theories about the cause of the problem. Duane Tom, the director of animal care at the California Wildlife Center in Malibu, said the recent storms on the West Coast may have caused oil runoff into the ocean, which made the pelicans sick.

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