Migrate or Die

It’s beginning to look like the surge in brown pelican deaths [400 + in a month] might be due to the freezing snow and ice of the Pacific Northwest, not algae induced neuro-toxins or other causes more mysterious.

According to a preliminary report to be released Friday, many of the birds flooding West Coast animal hospitals and rescue centers were caught in a snowstorm and brutal cold snap on the Oregon-Washington border in mid-December, setting off an arduous and often life-threatening commute to warmer climes.

“Pelicans were observed in the middle of that storm and then seen moving south,” said David A. Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Game. About a week later, he said, ill birds started showing up on the California coast and inland.

The tip-off for scientists, said Mr. Jessup, was frostbite. “It was severe in a lot of cases,” he said. “There were legs, toes and pouches frozen off.”

The interesting sub-text is that the birds were calling Oregon home because the gradual shift of warming water northward and the fish it carried made life more comfortable in those climes. If Darwin’s finches are any predictor we should soon be seeing new pelican species emerging — with tufted ankles, say, like the booted racket-tailed hummingbird. Though, not to make light of this, there is no guarantee of anything. Rapid, wide ranging weather conditions will likely have rapid, wide ranging results on our own lives as well as those of pelicans.