US Gulf Coast bird colonies at risk from oil spill

* Brown pelicans in key hatching period

* Rescue volunteers kept ashore by rough seas

* Oil will persist in sensitive habitat for years

By Kathy Finn

FORT JACKSON, La., May 4 (BestGrowthStock) – For the birds that
nest in the fragile marshes, swamps and barrier islands of the
U.S. Gulf Coast, the timing of a massive oil slick threatening
the shore could not be worse.

On the Chandeleur Islands — a chain of islands off the
Louisiana coast where an oil spill from last month’s offshore
oil rig explosion could hit shore as early as Tuesday — about
3,000 brown pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird, are nesting and
laying eggs.

“They are right in the middle of having eggs hatching and
feeding their chicks,” said Michael Fry, a bird expert at the
American Bird Conservancy who advised the U.S. government after
the massive 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. “I expect the
pelicans will get pretty hammered.”

The dozens of state and national parks and wildlife
reserves that line the four Gulf Coast states in the path of
the spill are vitally important to hundreds of species of birds
that live there or rest there during migrations.

Many of the birds injured by the oil could end up in Fort
Jackson at a rescue center run by the International Bird Rescue
Research Center and Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research.

A small army of volunteers and wildlife officials have laid
booms in the water to protect about 200 miles (322 km) of the
most sensitive bird habitats in Louisiana and Mississippi, Fry
said.

But even if the oil is kept from shore, birds that fly out
to sea to catch fish will inevitably be soiled, he said.

So far just one bird — a Northern Gannet — has received
treatment there. That bird is recovering, but rescuers fear
that the stormy weather that hindered efforts to contain the
spill for days has also kept their volunteers from venturing
out into the water and rescuing other injured birds.

“It’s a real logistical challenge,” said Tom Holcomb, who
directs the rescue center in Fort Jackson.

“Human safety is number one — we can’t just send people
out in boats in rough seas,” Holcomb said. “The concern is we
won’t get to the birds in time.”

PEPTO-BISMOL

When a bird becomes coated in oil, it loses its insulation.
Oil-saturated feathers stick together, exposing the animal’s
skin. Even in relatively warm temperatures, high winds can
chill the bird quickly. Birds are apt to ingest the toxic oil
as they feed in the water.

Tri-State veterinarian Erica Miller, who is part of the
rescue team, said treating oiled birds is a delicate process. A
bird must be stabilized after experiencing the shocks of the
oil and then being captured before it can be washed.

To counter oil ingestion, birds must repeatedly receive
fluids. “We also give them Pepto-Bismol in appropriate doses,”
Miller said, referring to a medication used to treat minor
upset stomach in people. “We carefully administer it directly
into the stomach to help alleviate some of the irritation.”

Coastal birds like brown pelicans, egrets, herons and
ibises are the most vulnerable to an oil spill, because the oil
will seep into their habitat and stay there for years, Fry
said.

Once it settles into the mangroves and cat-tails of the
marshes, oil migrates into the filter-feeding creatures that
birds, in turn, feed on — like oysters, clams and shrimp.

“It will be there for years,” Fry said.

Growth Stocks

(Writing by Chris Baltimore; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

(For more on the spill. click on [ID:nSPILL]

US Gulf Coast bird colonies at risk from oil spill