Pomp, Circumstance and Pelicans: Winged Interlopers Swoop Down on Pepperdine University Graduation

The young brown pelicans, a once federally endangered species, were likely foraging for food when they dive-bombed the commencement overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu

Two pelicans earned degrees in party crashing when they swooped down on Pepperdine University's graduation ceremony Friday and dived into the crowd, adding an unexpected twist to the pomp and circumstance.

The brown pelicans, which can dive from about 60 feet in the air when they plunge into shallow ocean waters for food, soared over the cheering audience before one appeared to land in someone's lap. The pelican, flapping its wings, emerged from the audience and began walking on the grass in front of the group. 

A man tried to pick up one of the pelicans, catching a face full of beak when he got too close and the pelican sharply turned its head. Both were eventually shooed away from the picturesque campus next to the ocean in Malibu.

The pelicans are likely young birds from the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California who recently fledged, said Anna Weinstein, marine program director for Audubon California.

"To me, they look emaciated," said Weinstein. "When you see these kind of erratic behaviors, especially with young birds, it almost always means they're starving.

"The most likely thing is they fledged, were taught by their parents how to fish, but they're just not succeeding."

Successful foraging for young brown pelicans depends on several factors, but Weinstein noted that the sardine population has collapsed off the coast of California for three consecutive years. Brown pelicans spend most of their time over shallow waters and in sheltered bays along the California coast. Groups often can be seen flying low over the water when they're feeding, diving head-first to catch their prey.

The easy-to-recognize seabird with a throat pouch that can store two gallons of water was classified as federally endangered in 1970, but de-listed in 2009. Channel Islands National Park on West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands off the coast of California are home to the brown pelicans' only breeding colonies in the western United States.

When the Channel Islands population faces increased food shortages where they breed, some brown pelicans forage in unusual areas and scavenge for handouts.

The positive take-away from the birds' surprise appearance is that it suggests brown pelicans are breeding on the islands. It is a conservation success story that was decades in the making. 

"We're not hearing lots of reports of starving brown pelicans, but this might just be an unlucky pair," Weinsten said, adding that they have recovered well from thin egg shell problems caused by the banned pesticide DDT. "This has been a spectacular success story. They're an iconic species that people really recognize."

As for the human reaction captured in the video, Weinstein said it's flawed, but understandable.

"That's a difficult situation for people because its absolutely unexpected," Weinstein said. "It's not like on a beach. People didn't know how to react. Seeing people trying to grab the bird, they put themselves at risk."

Anyone in the Los Angeles area who encounters a bird that might need help can contact the International Bird Rescue Center at 310-514-2573.

Video Credit: Grant Dillion

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