Over the last several months, a young brown pelican's obsessive preening regimen has dominated the view from my office window at the Northern California wildlife hospital where I work. We don't name the patients we care for — if animals could talk, I imagine the first thing they'd express is their dislike of anthropomorphism. But I can't stop thinking of him as Red, because of the colored temporary band on his right leg.
Red came to us in September with a severe injury to his wing caused by a fishing hook. The aviary that houses Red can have as many as 100 convalescing pelicans at a time. Typically they arrive in summer, mostly young birds from nesting colonies in the Channel Islands and Mexico.
All pelicans must learn the kamikaze technique of diving for fish from great heights in order to survive. But in recent years, even the ones that master the skill have suffered along the California coast. Theories as to why abound: severe weather driven by climate change, a crippling sardine crash, the unknown effects of these and other variables colliding.
We've received an influx of sick pelicans in recent years, often picked up from peculiar places: supermarket parking lots, for instance, or on shoulders of freeways. These aren't cases of pelicans that have become habituated to humans and are begging for handouts at Whole Foods. Often they're starving and going to great lengths to feed themselves, but the inland places where they've ended up happen to be urban pavement.
Whatever's happening, it's not following the "mission accomplished" script written by the federal government for an animal that spent decades on the endangered species list.
Called "one of the most interesting of our American birds" by John James Audubon, pelicans were targeted by egg collectors and hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and their feathers were sought-after by the millinery trade. The slaughter of pelicans and other birds led to the first federal wildlife protection law in 1900.
Even so, pelicans were no match for DDT. Widespread use of the insecticide in the 1940s and 1950s caused the eggshells of many species to thin. The result for birds such as pelicans was that they broke the eggs they so ardently tried to protect in their nests. The brown pelican population plummeted, and the birds were listed as federally endangered in 1970.
This year marks the five-year anniversary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's removal of the pelican from the endangered species list. By law, wildlife officials are required to monitor formerly threatened or endangered species for a minimum of five years to ensure they don't return to a fragile state. A draft plan for brown pelicans called for a 10-year monitoring effort, from California to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
The plan was never finalized, however, apparently because of a lack of funding. That could prove disastrous.
Pelicans like Red don't inhabit the upper echelons of "charismatic megafauna" — the polar bears, gray wolves and blue whales of the world that command the subject lines of "donate now" appeals. Last year, an NBA franchise named its team after my favorite bird, and I had hoped this might raise its profile. But the only change I've seen is that basketball news and trivia now dominate Google searches for "pelican." The bird that Audubon so admired still needs a savior.
Andrew Harmon is communications director for International Bird Rescue in California.