The great pelican contest

Attention nature lovers: Next time you’re near the beach, keep an eye out. A special contest is asking coastal residents to identify recently rehabilitated Brown Pelicans in an effort to improve scientific knowledge of the birds’ movements.

The contest was announced in November by International Bird Rescue (IBR), a San Pedro nonprofit that rehabilitates sick and injured seabirds. The person who reports the most confirmed sightings before January 2 will win a pair of Eagle Optics binoculars (retail price $500). There is also a photo contest for best photo of a blue-banded Brown Pelican. 

Over the last 20 years IBR has released more than 5,000 rehabilitated Brown Pelicans—a species once on the verge of extinction due to the use of the pesticide DDT. The organization began banding the pelicans in 2009 and recently banded and released its 1,000th Brown Pelican. So far during the contest, the birds have been seen from Mexico to Washington state, as well as several Gulf states. 

Cindy Reyes, executive director of the California Wildlife Center, the local group tasked with capturing ill and injured pelicans in Malibu and transporting them to IBR, said “anywhere” in Malibu is a good place to see the pelicans. 

“Even now with all the construction at the Malibu Lagoon, you can still see them,” Reyes said, noting that two of the banded birds had been seen in the lagoon earlier this year. “You can also look at any rocks just offshore, especially at El Matador, El Pescador and La Piedra beaches and Point Dume. Pelicans are migratory, so you’ll see more at some times of the year than others.” 

The contest is meant to enlist the public’s help on an important research project. Once pelicans are released from IBR’s hospitals and fly out to sea, the group wants to find out what happens to them and where they go. Helping to spot and report these birds will help to conserve them. Hopefully this information will teach scientists where and how the birds get into trouble, then take action to prevent any future problems. 

Many blue-banded pelicans are young and still learning how to survive on the coast, where food supplies can be limited and the odds of encountering human-related injuries are high, including encounters with fishermen, fish-processing activities or even abuse. One of IBR’s goals is to identify areas where pelicans are being killed or injured, and work with state and federal agencies to prevent problems. 

Since the contest began, about 30 blue-banded pelicans have been spotted. 

“We just received sightings of two of our birds in Victoria, BC… the furthest north that any of our pelicans have been seen,” Holcomb said. “We get a lot of reports from Monterey, Redondo Beach, San Pedro and Half Moon Bay, where many pelicans hang out and people see them.” 

Holcomb said one bird had been seen 10 different times in Pacifica, while another one had been spotted seven times hanging around the Redondo Beach Pier. 

“The risk is that people find these birds endearing and want to feed them,” Holcomb said. “If birds become habituated to people, it always ends up as trouble.” 

Even after the contest is over, the band-reporting study will continue. 

“We want people to keep reporting the birds,” Holcomb said, “The more information we get, the better. This is a very long ongoing study. The contest was to get people involved and encouraged, and it’s working.” 

If anyone sees a pelican with a blue band on its leg, they can note the number and report it online at and click on “blue-banded pelicans.” Sightings can also be called in to 707.207.0380, ext. 7. All blue bands have one letter followed by two numbers, like “J25” or “C10.”

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