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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

In the official books that record such things, the state bird of California is the Valley Quail. You may never have seen one, but they're smaller than the common pigeon and were praised for their beauty back in 1844 by John James Audobon himself.

And that's all fine. But here in 2009, there's concern about a more representative avian icon of the California coast.

Who doesn't enjoy watching brown pelicans skim the tops of the ocean swells -- in tightly choreographed packs, looking like graceful prehistoric creatures?

When they see a fish they want, the ancient hunters tuck in their wings and plunge out of the sky -- vanishing below the surface of Santa Monica Bay and all the other coastal waters around here.

It's a magnificent spectacle, and it's one of the reasons why this week's news about a mysterious ailment in the brown pelican population is so distressing.

From Baja California up to Washington, weak and disoriented birds are turning up miles inland. They suffer from unusual bruising in the pouches that make pelicans so distinctive.

Dead pelicans have been found on the Harbor Freeway and on runways at LAX. As yet, scientists don't know what's going on.

Actually, the quote I saw from someone at the nonprofit group Wild Rescue is that they're "a little freaked out" and they've never seen this happen before.

It's the history that elevates this from a routine environmental alarm to something that has gotten wide attention in coastal communities.

Pelicans have survived many perils, from the fashion craze for bird plumes around the turn of the 20th century, to the hooks and bullets of annoyed fishermen.

But it was the World War II era pesticide DDT that drove the brown pelican onto the federal endangered species list.

The heavily used poison washed down Southern California waterways and sewers and into the Pacific food chain. As often happens, the unintended effects played out worse in the animals at the top of the chain.

Anchovies absorbed the chemical mix. Pelicans gorged on the anchovies, and their egg shells became as thin as paper.

Reproduction rates plummeted, and for awhile it was an unusual treat to spot a pod of pelicans cruising over the bay.

Only the nationwide ban on DDT use in 1972 -- and the shutdown of discharges here by Montrose Chemical Company a decade later -- saved the pelican.

Their numbers have rebounded, but what happened then gives the new investigation an extra edge of urgency.

The answer may be nothing more serious than a reaction to weather. Or it could be a more threatening virus outbreak -- or the byproduct of a natural toxin in algae that's on the rise.

At least scientists hope they'll be able to get a handle on what's ailing the pelicans. There's nothing more to be done for another icon of the Southern California coast.

That is the steamship SS Catalina, which for half a century ferried visitors to Santa Catalina Island.

The Great White Steamer, as it was called, crossed between San Pedro and Avalon with music blaring until 1974 –- and it seems like nostalgia buffs have been trying to acquire and restore the ship ever since.

Well, that's not going to happen. The SS Catalina has been scuttled in Ensenada Harbor in Baja. Crews are taking the ship apart for salvage.

It won't become a poor cousin of the Queen Mary, occasionally boarded by tourists and old timers looking to engage their memories. And maybe, just maybe, that's a good thing.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

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