On the front lines of an ecological disaster.
“It’s like waiting for an earthquake to happen” said my friend Paul Kelway – Associate Director of International Bird Rescue Research Center.
It has now been over three weeks since the disastrous Deepwater Horizon accident that has spilled millions of gallons of oil off the Louisiana coast. Yet so far IBRRC and Tri-State Bird Rescue, the two wildlife rescue groups on the scene in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, have only encountered a few oil-slicked birds.
Paul recently experienced an earthquake in Southern California, the feeling of immense and dangerous forces suddenly beyond control. The potential environmental impacts of the oil spill are similar to that except that waiting to find out what the impacts will be is agonizingly slow. The spill may yet inflict huge damage on wildlife, during the breeding season, the most vulnerable time of the year—but there is little or nothing that can be done to prevent it.
Paul has participated in large scale bird rescues involving hundreds of volunteers and numerous organizations helping to wash oil off of seabirds including one rescue in South Africa involving 20,000 penguins. I asked Paul how these wild birds react to being washed. “It’s extremely stressful for the birds” he said. First they wash the birds in Dawn dishwashing detergent to remove the oil. The birds are also fed a slurry made of fish and kept in captivity until they can recover from stress and restore their own natural waterproofing. Recently, following several days of intense rains in California IBRRC treated over 200 sick, wet and starving brown pelicans that lost their waterproofing for unknown reasons.
The following excerpt is taken from a phone conference with Jay Holcomb the Director of IBRRC, who has participated in over 200 bird rescue missions and is currently leading a 16 person team in the bird rescue in Louisiana.
We’ve had times where we’ve come to spills where there have been birds in boxes waiting for us, and we had to work around them. In this case, we had a little bit of time. So that’s the silver lining in this. The bad thing is that we know the potential could be really great…if it impacts the nesting islands where all these pelicans have babies right now – and terns and gulls and other birds. Or it could just somehow not do that. So it’s…in between, and we’re just kind of in the waiting pattern and caring for the few birds we have.
What they’re seeing is a lot of clean birds, which is good, and a lot of healthy birds, thousands. They have seen oil in the water in certain areas and tar balls getting on some of the beaches. The only oil birds that they’ve actually seen themselves are gulls and a few pelicans that have funny spots of oil on their chins. We typically aren’t too worried about those birds in a warm climate like this…If there was any bird that was heavily oiled, where it couldn’t fly, or looked cold or in distress, they would of course attempt to capture it. But so far, they haven’t really seen that.
The brown pelican in Louisiana was almost at the verge of extinction 20 years ago… And then they literally brought them back by transplanting baby pelicans from Florida into these incredible islands out here, and started… a breeding colony from that… they really worked to manage and build up this colony. On one of the islands alone there’s 900 adult birds with their nests and their babies right now.
You have to keep in mind that the pelicans need to go out and feed in the waters around these islands. So if there is oil there then, of course, there is a potential of them being impacted… if an adult bird that has juvenile birds in the nest and is feeding them gets oiled and it’s killed or harmed in such a way where it can’t get back then, of course, there is ultimately a domino effect which means the babies could die because they’re not getting fed. So that’s the big concern. It’s not just the loss of one bird. It’s the loss of the young.
We did a spill here a few years back just before the Katrina Hurricane and what happened was it was a relatively small amount of oil that came out of a pipeline that broke. But a tropical storm took that oil and blew it over an island. These islands are very low out there. When we say islands they’re almost sand bars some of them with some grass and some plants growing on
them. And they’re perfect for pelican nesting. But the waves were very high and they blew over the islands and it affected hundreds – it just covered hundreds of baby pelicans with oil.
So we received those animals. If that happens it could wipe out the colony… We’re praying that doesn’t happen and that the weather stays good enough so that these animals can fledge and move off with their parents.
The other vulnerability is sea turtles…These sea turtles are…known to feed on things on the surface of the water. And there have been documented cases where sea turtles have unfortunately mistaken you know (tar balls) and things like that for food and have eaten that, so there have (also) been some risks there with the sea turtles.
To learn more or to support the International Bird Rescue Research Center visit http://www.ibrrc.org/