The Gulf Oil Spill's Helpless Victims: Wildlife
The brown pelican normally has a mixed coloring, with patches of white and gray, but the ones in Louisiana, whose bellies and breasts are oiled, look as though they've been painted with a viscous brown slime. This causes the birds to preen obsessively. They stand on the mangroves or on the shore and preen. They preen, and they preen, and they preen, not stopping because the oil doesn't come off. They don't stop even to eat, and then they eventually die.
It has been a month since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, and the official bird mortality count is 393. By contrast, in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spill occurred, 250,000 seabirds died in days after the accident.
There is a stark difference in the numbers because of the difference in circumstance, but biologists and other experts are becoming increasingly concerned by the still unknown, potentially irreparable long-term effects of the Gulf oil disaster on wildlife in the region.
"This is not Exxon-Valdez. It is having very different effects on wildlife," says David Ringer of the National Audubon Society's Mississippi River Initiative. "That's because of how different a spill it is. The birds were trickling in. But over the last week, things have really started hitting and it's ramping up."
The Audubon Society's bird conservation teams have been working with the oiled wildlife rescue efforts coordinated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and have, since the start of the oil leak, seen its impact on wildlife in the area.
So far, the picture is full of unknowns.
"There are sections of the coast still that have no birds oiled, no obvious impact," says Melanie Driscoll, the director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society's Louisiana Program. "There are birds that are lightly oiled, just a little bit of oil on the belly or face and they're seeming to run around and feed and act fairly normally. There are also birds that have oil covering a greater proportion of the body. There are birds that are found on beaches or marshes that are dead already."
What's clear is that more and more birds do have oil on their plumage, which can still be fatal, Ringer says. "What's happening is that those birds are slowly weakening physically and what we're going to see is a slower mortality but mortality nonetheless."
"It's very difficult to look these birds in the eye and see them going through what they're going through," Ringer says. "I know that it's our fault."
To the public, it may seem as though wildlife rescue efforts are not happening quickly enough, or that they aren't happening effectively enough. But the rescue efforts are slow-moving because they are complicated and difficult.
"Most of the birds that feed far out would never be seen to be rescued," Driscoll says. "A lot of birds may have been impacted and have died that we will never see. Marsh birds are small, secretive and don't fly much anyway. The visible numbers do not at all give us a sense of the magnitude of the actual problem."
Trying to bring in an oiled bird from a breeding colony in order to clean it may do more harm to the bird and the colony, killing chicks and crushing eggs. Additionally, many of the birds can simply fly away without a rescuer being able to catch them, and adult birds can crash into each other trying to avoid being netted. Driscoll urges members of the public not to try and rescue an oiled bird alone.
"More harm comes from attempts to help," she says. "Rescue effort needs to happen officially by trained biologists. The scope is too big, the habitats are too remote, the risks of colony failure are too great."
For those interested in providing some help to the rescue efforts, she suggests staying informed or making monetary donations. Visit websites for the National Audubon Society or the National Wildlife Federation to donate now.
For updates on the oiled wildlife rescue efforts, check the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services website and Audubon Magazine's blog.
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