Wildlife groups issue urgent appeal for starving California brown pelicans.

Feeling Lousy: This brown pelican at the end of Monterey's Wharf II may have been hoping for charity. Starving pelicans have been seen begging this winter, an unusual behavior for birds that normally keep their distance from humans.

It's been a tough couple of winters for California brown pelicans.

Last winter, the epidemic began with sightings of confused pelicans far outside their usual migratory routes. By February, International Bird Rescue Research Center's two California rehab centers had taken in about 200 sick pelicans. Biologists eventually chalked it up to a cold snap at the Oregon-Washington border.

But it happened again this winter: Thousands of brown pelicans have been found starving along the coast from Oregon to San Diego. Their food supply has likely been reduced by an El Niño event, which suppresses the natural upwelling that in normal years brings nutrient-rich deep water to the ocean's surface and boosts fish abundance.

El Niño is a natural event, but Moss Landing-based WildRescue sees a trend. "The recent pelican die-off is just the latest in a series of natural events killing thousands of otherwise healthy marine animals," a press release reads. "According to wildlife rescuers, the devastating anomalies seem to be on the increase in magnitude and frequency."

The release notes an unusual algae bloom that killed more than 10,000 seabirds off Oregon and Washington earlier this winter and sickened hundreds of seabirds in Monterey Bay in 2007.

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Government agencies are reluctant to rescue wildlife impacted by events that cannot be directly linked to human activities, WildRescue notes: "It has fallen solely on the nonprofit rescue groups that can only do so much."

WildRescue founder Rebecca Dmytryk and her colleagues are drafting a "disaster response plan to unite researchers, scientists, resource agencies, and rescuers in preparation for future response to natural disasters that impact hundreds or thousands of wild animals. The plan also calls for the development of a war chest, ideally an endowment that would secure backing in times of crisis."

To report a wildlife crisis, call 866-WILD-911.

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