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Salton Sea pelican population declining at startling rate

Bird populations threatened.

SALTON SEA, Calif.- - A new report paints a grim future for birds that rely on the Salton Sea habitat. Audubon California-released report uses bird-monitoring data from several different sources to show just how the destruction of the Salton Sea ecological habitat has decimated the populations of both pelicans and cormorants endemic to the area.

As the Salton Sea recedes, the body of water's salinity increases, which kills off its tilapia population. Without tilapia, the birds starve. 

According to surveys, there were approximately 20,000 American White Pelicans in 2008. According to Aerial surveys conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, that number now sits at 100. Audubon's own research backs up this decline. 

“For a community that once held annual Pelican Days Birding Festivals, the decline of these great birds is certainly disheartening,” said Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of bird conservation, and principal author of the new report. “At its peak, the Salton Sea hosted a broad diversity of birds, and any habitat restoration that takes place here should serve that diversity.”

According to the report, the Salton Sea has been known to support massive percentages of several different North American Bird Species. According to the report. during the winter months, the Salton Sea habitat harbors:

  • An estimated 30% of the population of North American White American Pelicans
  • Approximately 50% of the Pacific Flyway population of Ruddy Dycks
  • An estimated 25-90% of the population of North American Eared Grebes (1 to 3 million birds). (In open water and Salton Sea area impoundments in the 1980's & 1990's) 

The report also states that "significant interior wintering populations" Western Grebes and Brown Pelicans, and the "largest interior winter site" for Western Snowy Plovers.

During summer breeding season, the Salton Sea habitat supports:

  • Endangered or threatened populations of the Yuma Ridgway's Rail and the California Black Rail
  • A breeding population of interior Western Snowy Plovers
  • Populations of Caspian Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Laughing Gull, and different species of large waders

The habitat had previously supported "large breeding colonies of Double-Crested Cormorant", before colony abandonment (the birds ceased using the habitat). 

The Salton Sea habitat acts as a "stopover site" for nearly 400 species and millions of birds.

In addition to food scarcity, adverse conditions created by the increased salinity has led to at least one mass die-off in a bird population; in January, 7,000 Ruddy Ducks died from avian cholera. The disease affects birds "in crowded and stressed conditions" according to the Audubon release on the report. News Channel 3 first reported of this massive bird die-off in January,

“Some birds will diminish and other birds will prosper – but the overall number of birds at the Sea is shrinking,” added Jones. “It is my hope that ten years from now, people can visit the Salton Sea and watch large formations of these magnificent birds flying along the shoreline and dropping down onto the water to feed on the fish below its surface.”

Although the outlook currently looks grim, recent months have brought some reason for when it comes to conserving and restoring the desert sea; $280 million has been committed by the state toward Salton Sea projects. 

You can read the full Audubon report below:


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