By CHRIS CASKEY
The Union Democrat
Visitors from around the world flock to Yosemite National Park. But the park had an unexpected guest this week from the Pacific Coast - a California brown pelican.
On Tuesday, park wildlife officials came across the adult female pelican standing along the road. It's one of a number of lost and hungry pelicans this summer that have been found looking for food far from the coastal bird's native range.
Representatives with the Bay Area bird center that took the unnamed bird say this summer has seen an increase of pelicans showing up in unusual places. Park officials say they have never heard of a pelican found in Yosemite before.
"This is the first one they can ever remember. It's extremely rare," said park spokeswoman Kari Cobb.
Park wildlife officials received the report of the pelican Tuesday afternoon after a local found it on Big Oak Flat Road between the Foresta turnoff and the tunnel, Cobb said. The bird but was emaciated and clearly stressed. Park wildlife management caught it and kept it at a wildlife center overnight where they gave it water.
The park contacted the International Bird Rescue, which has a center in Fairfield, and turned over the pelican late Wednesday morning. The center will add the bird to the unusually high number on hand right now because of the spike in starving, young pelicans being found along the west coast.
"I think that's the most pelicans we've ever had in there," Marie Travers, assistant center manager, said of the Bay Area's center pelican aviary.
The California brown pelican's breeding range runs from the Channel Islands in Southern California into Mexico. The bird's range after breeding runs north along the coast to Vancouver, Canada, according to the National Parks Service, but does not typically extend inland.
California populations faced extinction in the 1970s largely due to the pesticide DDT, according to the Park Service. But the species saw a remarkable comeback beginning in the 1980s.
According to International Bird Rescue, that could be leading to incidents like this. The center's locations have seen a marked increase in starving pelicans found this summer along beaches and in some cases further inland. The Bay Area center has around 125, and the organization had at least 150 total under its care as of late last week.
A press release issued by the center last Wednesday stated the population is likely experiencing a "natural chick mortality event" where young members of a healthy population are not successful at hunting for themselves.
The starving birds will sometimes exhibit unusual behavior like begging for food or approaching people on beaches.
"They're mostly juvenile … emaciated, and a lot of them are approaching humans for handouts," Travers said.
Some also travel far from the coast in search of food. Another pelican was recovered from the Sonora area in recent weeks, but did not survive.
Travers said when the birds are brought to the center, they are examined fed and undergo a rehab process of about two to three weeks before they're released again.
"When we release them, we make sure they're on the fatter side," she said.