Rescued pelicans released

ASTORIA — The Wildlife Center of the North Coast recently released 14 California brown pelicans that were stranded in this winter's snowstorms and taken in for treatment.

In December and January, the Olney wildlife center received 35 ailing, emaciated and frostbitten pelicans that didn't make it to California before the bitter cold hit Oregon. The birds were part of a major stranding event that affected an estimated 300 to 400 pelicans in the region.

The 14 pelicans released into the Columbia River estuary were treated and fully rehabilitated, while 19 left at the center still need additional care. Two of the birds brought to the center didn't survive.

The release, which took place in Chinook, Wash., drew a small crowd of wildlife volunteers, including Deborah Jaques, a wildlife biologist and pelican expert from Astoria who has been studying the winter stranding.

"It was interesting to see them go," said Jaques. "We set the cages out in a row, opened the doors simultaneously, and bam! They just all flew at the same time. They took off, swirled around in a group, landed in the water and started bathing vigorously."

Many of them joined a couple hundred pelicans already roosting on East Sand Island, in Washington's Baker Bay. Jaques said following the crowd will help the newly released pelicans find food.

Each of the birds released was given a nutritious shot of vitamin B as "an extra boost" to help them on their way, said wildlife center founder and director Sharnelle Fee. Each of the birds is also sporting two bands on its feet, one metal federal band and one white color band with numbers. The second band will help the center track the birds' movements now that they're back in the wild.

Fee is asking people to look for the bands when they see pelicans in the area and report the number and location to the center.

The Wildlife Center of the North Coast is a private nonprofit with a broad coverage area that extends from the central Oregon coast all the way up the coast of Southwest Washington. Fee bought the property in Olney and built the center to serve as a hospital and rehabilitation hub for the region's indigenous wildlife. Right now, the center is treating a wide array of animals, including bald eagles, common murres and a bobcat whose leg was injured by a trap.

Dr. Brad Pope, a veterinarian with Bayshore Animal Hospital in Warrenton, helps tend to the injured wildlife.

The center normally takes in some injured and ailing pelicans each year, but it got a whole lot more than normal this winter, after unusually warm fall weather and an abundance of forage fish kept thousands of the birds on the North Coast well into November.

"Summer lingered into fall, fall lingered into winter, and as a result the pelicans were still here in mid-and late November because the weather was still nice and there was still a lot of food out there," said Fee. "What also was unusual is we had a lot of mature breeding pelicans that stayed in our area instead of migrating south for their breeding grounds."

Many of the birds started their southward migration a little too late, got caught in the winter storms and suffered frostbite, hypothermia and exhaustion, among other ailments from braving the snow and ice.

About 200 pelicans were reported dead in Northern California in late December and early January.

"We were collecting damaged pelicans from Florence all the way up north as they tried to make it out of Oregon," said Fee.

The birds were brought into the center by a network of volunteer drivers.

"We have people Pony Express wildlife up to the center so no one person has to make the whole trip," Fee said. "Someone in Newport ferries it to Lincoln City and someone else to Pacific City and on up to the center. We have triage centers along the way where we can stabilize the birds and treat any injuries."

Some of the birds needed surgery on their feet because the frostbite had killed part of their bones. The center is making sure all the birds had at least half their foot web back before releasing them.

Fee said she expects to release the remaining 19 pelicans within the next few weeks.

The California brown pelicans are listed as an endangered species, but their populations have rebounded dramatically in recent decades. Researchers counted a record high of more than 12,000 pelicans on East Sand Island in the Columbia River estuary last September.

Fee said she suspects more pelicans will start staying in Oregon year-round as their range expands.

The first birds typically move north to Oregon and Washington in April, and the last of them take off toward Southern California and Mexico for breeding season by mid-November. Last year, more than 5,000 pelicans were counted at East Sand Island Nov. 24.


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