The Pelican State

By Becky W. Evans (

An oiled brown pelican is cleaned by bird rescuers Tuesday in Venice, La.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spilling Off the Page


Oil spill headlines grace the front pages displayed outside the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C.– During my pilgrimage to the Newseum on Monday, I found it impossible to stop thinking about the ever-expanding oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico — and my delay in writing a post about the disaster  for ThreeBeats.

After all, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the perfect ThreeBeats story: an event that impacts the environment, commercial fisheries and immigrant communities (think Vietnamese and Cambodian shrimpers).

Outside the museum’s Pennsylvania Ave. entrance, I found a display of the latest front pages from newspapers around the country. Many of them bore grim headlines detailing BP’s failed attempt to cap the blown-out oil well, where an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil gushes daily into the Gulf. Inside the museum, a giant news ticker flashed Associated Press headlines updating the latest plans for testing the effectiveness of deep-sea chemical dispersants.

Determined to contribute to the Deepwater coverage, I took a break from my tour of the six-floor museum and phoned into a press briefing staged at the Unified Area Command center in Robert, Louisiana. The briefing featured representatives from BP, the Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service, which are among the many agencies coordinating the oil spill response and cleanup. I was most interested in hearing from Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator. Earlier in her career, Landry oversaw the federal response to the 2003 Bouchard oil spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass., where up to 98,000 gallons of thick, fuel oil spilled from a Bouchard oil barge that drifted out of the shipping lanes and struck an underwater ledge.

For seven years, I have covered the progress of the Bouchard oil spill cleanup. I am wondering if Landry’s experience managing the response to the Buzzards Bay spill has influenced her approach to this much larger spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately Monday’s press briefing ended before I could pose this question to Landry, but I have since submitted my request to a Coast Guard petty officer working out of the command center in Robert, La.

Landry’s comments during the briefing reflected determination in tackling the oil spill at sea, and confidence in cleaning up any pollution that reaches land. “We’re ready for this should it come ashore,” she said.

Check out this slideshow of oil spill headlines from the Newseum display:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.