ASHLAND, Ore. -- An examination of six endangered brown pelicans found dead with their upper beaks cut off showed they had not been shot, but other details of when and how they died may never be known.
Veterinarian medical examiner Dr. Richard Stroud performed a necropsy on the birds Friday at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory here, but could not immediately determine a cause or time of death. His full report won't be available for some weeks.
The birds were found by a volunteer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing a bird mortality survey on the Oregon Coast north of Pacific City. Two were found Nov. 29 and four on Dec. 13. Fish and Wildlife special agents sent the carcasses to the lab for examination.
"We're basically looking into how this might have occurred," said Ben Perez, special agent in charge for the Northwest region. "A full range of possibilities is on our radar screen.
"We are persuing an unlawful take of an endangered species, so it is one of our top priorities."
All six birds had their upper beaks cleanly cut off perpendicularly a few inches from the point the upper and lower bills come together, apparently with a saw.
"I X-rayed them, and none of them were shot," said Stroud as he snipped open the clear plastic bags wrapping the individual carcasses at the lab.
"It's no shark bite. It's not just a normal fracture," he added as turned the heads one way and then the other while laying the six birds out on a stainless steel examining table.
Because the birds had soaked for a long time in the Pacific before washing ashore, it may never be known whether the bills had been cut off before or after death, Stroud said. However, there was some red around at least one of the cuts, indicating it may have bled.
"I don't think you have to be a bird lover to be incensed about this," said Stroud. "This is senseless cruelty."
Scavengers such as gulls had removed the internal organs, making it impossible to find evidence of some disease or toxic substance that would have killed the birds, he added.
The birds could have died a long way off and floated in on ocean currents, Stroud added.
With their brown heads and white bellies, the birds would have been juveniles, spending their first year on the Oregon Coast after hatching in the Channel Islands of southern California, said Deborah Jaques, an independent biologist who studies brown pelicans in Oregon.
Brown pelicans have been increasing in numbers in recent years after being declared an endangered species in 1970. Like bald eagles, they were victims of DDT poisoning, which causes eggshells to form so thin they crack before the chick can hatch.
The dead birds may have been among the 9,000 brown pelicans Jaques counted in the Columbia River estuary this year before late fall storms started driving them south for the winter.
"In the last few years, the Columbia River estuary has held most of the pelicans that migrate north of California," she said.
They are drawn by schools of anchovies, sardines and mackerel, which they feed on at the river's mouth, she said.
Young birds are less adept at feeding, and particularly vulnerable to winter storms, said Jaques. Pelicans have to roost on shore every night to clean and dry out their feathers. Caught in a storm, they could easily have died of hypothermia.
"They may have been starving and come into somebody's bait barge," said Dan Anderson, a professor of biology at the University of California at Davis. "When they come in for something to eat, they're easy to catch, and at the same time annoying to fishermen. But sawing off the bill if they're still alive -- they're nuts."