By Becky W. Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NEW ORLEANS, La.– People here love their pelicans. So much, that some homeowners mark the entrance to their driveway with pelican statues.
Images of pelicans grace state license plates and bridge signs. There is even a cartoon pelican throwing away trash on the adopt-a-highway signs. After all, Louisiana is known as “the Pelican State,” and the state bird is the brown pelican.
The long-billed birds thrive along Louisiana’s coast, where there is plenty of fish to scoop up with their stretchy pouches. But now that much of the Gulf of Mexico is covered with toxic oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, many pelicans are in danger. The oil clings to their feathers in clumps, disrupting their function and making the birds susceptible to stress from air, water and sun.
“It’s like a hole in a wetsuit,” said Rebecca Dunne, senior coordinator with Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc. of Newark, Delaware.
Dunne is part of a team of bird rescue experts who are trying to scrub BP oil off brown pelicans and other birds, including gannets, cattle egrets, common terns and royal terns. The group operates out of a warehouse at Fort Jackson in Venice, La.
On Tuesday, bird rescuers cleaned a brown pelican, who had likely plunged directly into a patch of oiled water, Dunne said. The oil had stained the bird’s white head a reddish-brown color. Rescuers donned gloves, aprons, sleeves and eyeglasses before handling the pelican, an adult male. They first lathered his feathers with canola oil to loosen the BP oil. Then they plunged him into a tub containing a mixture of water and Dawn liquid soap. To keep the struggling pelican comfortable, the water temperature was set at 104-degrees Fahrenheit, the same as the bird’s body temperature, Dunne said. Using their gloved hands along with toothbrushes and Q-tips, the rescuers scrubbed the oil off the pelican’s squirming body, around its eyes, along its beak and inside its pouch. The effort took about a half hour. Next, the bird was hosed down to remove any soap that could also limit the function of his feathers. The pelican was then rubbed dry with a towel before being carried into a special room for blow drying.
When the birds are clean and dry, they are moved into plywood pens with small pools, where they recuperate from the stress of human handling. The birds stay in the recovery area for about 10 days before being released into the wild, said Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, based in Fairfield, Calif. Pelicans and other large seabirds are being released as far away as Tampa Bay, Florida due to the wide expanse of the Deepwater spill, he said.
Over the last few weeks, oiled seabirds have been arriving at the center in small numbers, ranging from 1 to 4 birds per day, Holcomb said. He estimated that the survival rate was about 75 percent, with some birds dying from injuries unrelated to oil coating. BP will pay the full cost of bird rescue operations, said Holcomb, who could not offer an estimate of that cost. Dunne noted that the cleaning process is water intensive, often requiring up to 300 gallons of water per bird. The oiled water must be placed in barrels and disposed of properly, she said.
Dr. Erica Miller, a veterinarian who works for Tri-State Bird Rescue, said with most oil spills, bird rescuers handle a large number of birds over a short period of time. Miller was posted in New Bedford, Massachusetts following the April 2003 Bouchard oil spill in Buzzards Bay. Working out of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, she and other bird rescuers removed oil from about 100 oiled birds, including loons, eiders, surf scoters and gulls.
“In the New Bedford spill, we had lots of birds right away,” she said. “Here they just trickle in.”
For Miller, rescuing birds that are injured during oil spills is both “fun and fascinating.” But she admits that part of her motivation is fueled by guilt related to her own, and society’s, consumption of oil and oil-related products.
“We did it to them,” she said. “I kind of feel this obligation. I know we have the skills and knowledge and training and experience to rectify it, so I can’t just walk away from it.