Birds released from oily grave, never to see the ocean again
A cattle egret and a least bittern were released 10 days after being found and treated in a coastal rescue center.
Fri, Jun 04, 2010 at 11:06 AM
OILED: An oil-stained cattle egret rests on the deck of a supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Rescuers will find only a small number of oiled birds because most die at sea. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)
Two birds bound out of a cage to check out their new surroundings in the Louisiana countryside, far from where hundreds of their number writhe in an oily grave on the Gulf of Mexico.
About 50 miles from the coast, in the Sherburne Wildlife Area, a cattle egret and a least bittern took their first steps in total freedom, 10 days after being found and treated in a coastal rescue center.
"He is scoping around his new home," Sharon Taylor, a veterinarian with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says of the egret.
The bird then took a few steps in the marshland before trying out his wings. His smaller companion followed a few minutes later.
"They look happy here," said Taylor, surrounded by gently rolling meadows dotted by flocks of birds.
They are just two of the hundreds of birds affected by the devastating oil spill soiling the Gulf of Mexico.
On Thursday alone, some 60 birds were coated with oil when the leak hit the Queen Bess Island Rookery. Of the affected birds, 41 were pelicans, Louisiana's state bird.
Unlike survivors from the coastal marshlands, which can be released into humid inland areas after being cleaned and rehabilitated, pelicans and other coastal birds must be returned to the sea, where the risk of oil contamination remains.
The egret and the bittern had better luck, entering their new habitat after getting a full bill of health.
"This area was chosen because of its diversity. There's lots of their own kind here," said Robert Love, of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
He said there is only a "slim chance" that they would find their way back to the sea.
The two wading birds were either fouled by the slick when it entered the marshes, or when they flew out to sea.
They were only "moderately oiled," said Taylor.
After spending about half an hour cleaning them up, their rescuers dried them, and then let them waterproof their plumage, which they do with their beaks and saliva, but it takes between four and seven days.
These creatures were saved by a miracle. The center in Fort Jackson that found them on the southeastern point of Louisiana, the area worst affected by the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has received 200 oiled birds, said Love.
"Many were dead on arrival," he said.
Once cleaned, a bird's chances of survival are only 50 to 70 percent, he said. Many birds die from ingesting oil or from stress, which destroys their immune systems.
"In total, 550 dead birds have been found, but you find only a small number: most die at sea," Taylor said.
However, the number of carcasses found is "starting to pick up a bit" as the oil each day spreads further in the Gulf of Mexico, she said.
About 20 sea birds have been released since the start of the environmental disaster, but the slick has extended further east toward Florida.
"It's risky," said Taylor. "We are looking at the oil trajectory and the next release will probably be done on Florida's east coast."
In this troubling context, the return to nature of even two animals "is a little glimmer of hope," she said.
Copyright 2010 AFP American Edition