Dead, sticky birds piling up on beaches near City College

Marissa Falossi

Those walking on beaches bordering City College are noticing a trend of sticky, dead birds, something an instructor who scours the sands for trash believes is the result of a chemical used to stimulate growth on nearby, charred hillsides.

This year’s heavy rainstorms have been affecting the bird-life across the U.S., stumping both wildlife experts and researchers. Since the middle of January, countless Brown Pelicans have been coming ashore seriously ill or dead.

The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network is currently caring for 40 of the birds found on local beaches in its small private care unit.

“(They are) steadily trickling in,” said Julia Parker, director of animal affairs at Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, “with more birds increasing after each rain.”

The affected birds, according to Parker, have a sticky substance covering their feathers. This substance allows birds to swim but disables them from retaining body heat. They become too weak to fly and suffer from hypothermia and starvation.

Pelicans aren’t the only birds suffering from this epidemic; others include seagulls, willets, sandpipers, and cormorants.

The Brown Pelican species was removed from both the state and federal endangered species lists in 2009. But, they may be coming dangerously close to extinction once again.

English Instructor Patricia Morrill has been organizing weekly beach cleanups with City College students since July. Her “Beach Angels” group picks up hundreds of pounds of debris from the beach every month. Their weekly trash-loads include bottle caps, post-consumer plastics, glass, shotgun shells, Styrofoam, hypodermic needles, as well as the occasional shopping cart.

And now, Morrill said she finds something else littered amongst the debris: dead birds.

Morrill said she knew something was wrong with the birds long before the issue was widespread.

“I was at the beach one day is late November and a pelican flew down to my feet, put his head back and just looked at me, shivering,” she said. “I knew this poor animal was sending me the message that he was sick. I called the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network and they caught him.”

Morrill said the bird’s feathers were sticky.

Morrill described that immediately after a rainfall, there is an increase in the amount of dead birds washed ashore. Researchers, at a loss to explain the deaths of these sea birds, are looking at unusual ocean currents, the depletion of fish stocks, as well as temperature changes, toxic runoff and algae booms as possible causes.

However, a new explanation for this crisis is now being tested. Hyrdomulch, which is a combination of 60 percent wood fibers, 40 percent paper and an organic tackifier or “glue” mixed with water, is now a subject for consideration.

John Heil of the U.S. Forest Service disagreed.

“Hydromulch is made from an organic based substance called ‘guar,'” he said. “It’s water-soluble and shouldn’t stick to the bird’s feathers. I doubt it’s the cause.”

“We don’t know if it’s Hydromulch,” said Parker. “We’ve sent in some feather samples to be tested but what it is we still don’t know.”

Dr. Adam Green, assistant professor in biology and program coordinator of environmental studies at City College, said right now, “there is no clear cause” of why the sea birds are dying. But Green suspects that it is combination of factors.

“High rain levels may be flushing more contaminants, including phosphate rich fire retardant, oil from roads, and who knows what else, into coastal marine zones,” he said. “High nutrient loads (nitrogen and phosphates) can contribute to harmful algal blooms that can cause neurotoxicity in pelicans through the food chain. Oils and other compounds could affect the pelicans feathers and account for the hypothermia.”

Morrill, on the other hand, is convinced that only Hydromulch is to blame.

“This problem started in January and we haven’t had this problem before. You have to use common sense. What happened this year that hasn’t happened before?” Morrill said. “Cities are spraying Hydromulch.”

Though the direct cause remains a mystery, she continues to encourage students and everyone alike to reach out and try to put an end to this problem, starting with cleaning up our beaches.

“One hour. One beach. Once a week.” she said, referring to the Beach Angel’s slogan.

The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network is also asking for help.

“Our food bill to care for these birds is astronomical,” said Parker. “About $1,000 every two weeks, so donations are greatly appreciated.”

This month, the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network is having a volunteer orientation to train new volunteers.