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Captain’s Log: The Perils of Feeding Pelicans at Public Places

Despite good intentions, the age-old pastime can create hazards for wild birds

It seems like an age-old casual pastime, going to public places and feeding the birds. People find it relaxing and enjoyable to feed pigeons in the park or ducks on a lake.

Where regular public feedings are the planned way of life and management for birds, that may be OK. The point could well be argued either way. But when it creates hazards for wild birds such as pelicans, which naturally forage over wide areas, there is a dark side to feeding them.

Our state government issued a warning about feeding brown pelicans at public places, such as fishing piers. Below is what it offered.

Feeding Brown Pelicans Harms Them More Than It Helps

Large numbers of young brown pelicans are showing up on California’s beaches and fishing piers, and the Department of Fish and Game is advising the public not to feed them. Although the pelicans may exhibit begging behavior and some may appear weak, the birds need to remain wild and forage naturally.

“When people feed pelicans, it leads to habituation to humans and conflicts in the future, such as entanglement in fishing line around piers,” DFG wildlife biologist Esther Burkett said. “Improper feeding can also cause damage to the pelicans’ throat pouch and intestinal tract, and contribute to a decline in fitness and possible death.”

Although many people are understandably concerned about ailing pelicans, it is normal for some to die in the summer because of natural causes, especially the young pelicans learning to feed on schooling fish. The mortalities are caused by a natural balancing between population size and available food supply.

Anglers also should not feed pelicans or throw food scraps toward them or into the water. Trash cans and dumpsters should be kept closed to prevent pelicans from jumping in and getting oiled, and from getting fish parts lodged in their pouches and throats. Most of the pelicans in peril are young birds, and human contact habituates them to become pier bums, leading to an unsafe situation for the birds.

“Saving individual pelicans requires expensive capture, cleaning and care at a licensed rehabilitation facility,” Burkett said. “It’s far easier to exercise caution and take steps to prevent the problem in the first place.”

Another hazard facing pelicans that linger in unenclosed areas is fish oil at fish cleaning stations. Fish oils compromise seabirds’ natural waterproofing and insulation, making them vulnerable to hypothermia when cold ocean water contacts their skin.

Anyone who sees pelicans that appear to be sick or injured or entangled with fishing line should not touch or approach them. Injured wildlife will instinctively defend themselves and may injure someone trying to help them.

Though California brown pelicans are no longer listed as endangered, they are still a fully protected species in California, and a beautiful spectacle to behold while flying over the ocean and plunging into the water for food.

If you see injured or entangled pelicans that could be captured by trained wildlife handlers, please call one of these wildlife rescue organizations:

» Bird Ally X Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, 707.825.0801

» Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, 650.494.7283 or 650.340.8200

» Native Animal Rescue of Santa Cruz County, 831.462.0726

» SPCA for Monterey County, 831.646.5534

» WildCare, statewide, 866.WILD.911

In other areas, please call your local humane society or SPCA.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit to learn more about the organization and how you can help.

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