Wildlife crews brace for oiled birds
A total of 39 oiled birds have been recovered alive and 85 visibly oiled birds have been found dead, as of May 23.
Mon, May 24, 2010 at 05:02 AM
DIRTY BIRD: An oil-covered pelican flaps its wings on an island off the coast of Louisiana. The island is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well at terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)
Wildlife rescue crews braced for an influx of oiled birds and animals Monday as a heavy black tide seeped deeper into Louisiana's fragile coastal wetlands.
"No one should believe that because we haven't recovered thousands of oiled wildlife that the impact will not be widespread," said Ralph Morgenweck, a senior science advisor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We expect the number of affected wildlife to increase as time goes on."
A total of 39 oiled birds have been recovered alive and 85 visibly oiled birds have been found dead, officials said Sunday.
Some 19 dolphins and 193 sea turtles have also been found on coastal beaches since oil started gushing out of the wreckage of a BP-leased rig some 52 miles (84 kilometers) offshore on April 22. But officials have not yet determined the cause of their deaths.
The gushing Gulf spill threatens to eclipse Alaska's Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, the worst environmental disaster in US history — and a dark standard for the destruction of fish and wildlife.
The supertanker rupture in Prince William Sound, decimated Alaskan wildlife, including an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, according to a the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council, a nonprofit formed to oversee restoration of the injured ecosystem.
Today, hundreds of Fish & Wildlife employees and citizen volunteers are fanning out across the Gulf coast looking for oiled birds and animals to rescue.
In Fort Jackson — one of four wildlife rehabilitation centers set up in response to the spill — experts report an uptick of oiled birds from the BP spill, since the heavier crude began oozing into Louisiana marshes last week.
Most of the 15 large wooden pens set up inside the brown metal warehouse at a rehab center set up in Fort Jackson, Louisiana sat empty after a six rehabilitated birds were transported to Florida Sunday for release into the wild.
Some of those which remained were not in great shape, said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Center, which operates the rehab center with Tri-State Bird Rescue.
"They were pretty weak," Holcomb said of two pelicans rescued from oil-marred Grand Isle. "So they are being worked on and cared for."
Behind the warehouse, Holcomb showed a visitor several plywood wooden pens covered with nettings and occupied by recovering birds, including Northern Gannets, white cattle egrets, laughing gulls, and other species plucked from oiled patches of the Mississippi River Delta area.
At the entrance to one pen a white sign with red letters announced "PELICAN ISLAND." Inside, three gawky-looking brown pelicans appeared to lounge comfortably around a large pool in the sweltering mid-day heat. Small piles of fish lay scattered nearby.
In a neighboring pen, a lone northern gannett floated in the privacy of its own pool. The bird seemed docile and unfazed by the presence of two human visitors just inches away.
"He's a little slow from everything that's been done to him," Holcomb explained. "He's exhausted from being oiled, from being cleaned and from being handled - it wears them out."
The main concern at this stage in the oil spill crisis is that untrained rescuers will try to clean oiled birds as soon as they are plucked from the blackened marsh — a potentially fatal move.
"We don't want people cleaning them on the (rescue) boat because birds can get hypothermia and die — even on a hot day like this," said Barbara Callahan, another wildlife rehabilitator at the center.
Oiled birds can also die from ingesting the sludge. Crippled by crude, the wild fowl can also drown.
"The pelicans and gannets you saw earlier — if they hadn't been pulled out of the water by 'capture crews' and rescue workers — they would have drowned," Holcomb told AFP.
"It's just like if you tried to swim while wearing a long coat. You probably wouldn't last long."
Copyright 2010 AFP Global Edition