On a recent sweltering day in Theodore, Alabama, the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center took in a single bird for a cleaning.
Since the BP Plc oil rig blew up on April 20, thousands of birds -- dead and alive -- have been given individual attention in facilities around the Gulf of Mexico.
“I’ve worked in this business for 30 years,” says biologist Ken Rice, hired by BP as an independent contractor. “It breaks my heart to see one oiled bird.”
It really does grip the heart to watch the terrified bird, in this case a male laughing gull, held under running water while being toothbrush-scrubbed by two no-nonsense handlers. This particular fellow is lightly oiled and has an excellent chance for survival. He can expect to be released in a couple days.
More than 1,400 birds have been rescued throughout the Gulf region after exposure to spilled oil; about a third of these have been rehabilitated and released. About 3,900 dead birds, most covered in oil, have been brought in and processed as well.
Data generated from this work will help us understand how to best treat injured birds, and it might end up as evidence in the criminal and civil investigations the U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing.
“We are invading an area that they have,” Rice says, referring to how oil exploration encroaches on avian territory. “It’s their habitat.”
The biologist doesn’t think any bird species will be seriously threatened by the disaster, not even the brown pelican, which was taken off the endangered-species list only last year. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Schmerfeld, also at the Theodore facility, isn’t so sanguine about the pelican’s prospects.
“They are a special concern,” he says. “They are one of the species that are going to be hit hardest, and we are seeing tons of them.”
It does not take much oil to kill a bird. Oily feathers get matted and separated, and birds lose their ability to fly, swim and regulate body temperature. An oiled bird will incessantly preen its feathers, ingesting toxins that can cause fatal lung, liver and kidney damage.
In what might be a bit of good news, recent observations suggest the oil slick is dissipating faster than expected (at the surface anyway), perhaps due to storms, which can speed up diffusion of the oil. So too can the chemical dispersants, which break up oil into into more palatable sizes for the bacteria that consume it naturally.
“The bacteria convert the oil into a biomass,” says Florida State University professor of oceanography Markus Huettel. “It can enter the food chain, but it does not accumulate there in the same way as manmade pollution.”
No one knows yet how wildlife is affected by chemical dispersants, which have been poured over the oil in unprecedented amounts -- nearly 2 million gallons of the stuff so far. Nor do we know the extent of the gigantic unseen, underwater plumes of oil, which create dead zones by sucking oxygen out of huge swathes of habitat.
I accompany a small U.S. Department of Agriculture crew on a search-and-rescue mission in Bon Secour Bay, Gulf Shores, Alabama. The wildlife specialists, trained in both animal rescue and handling hazardous materials, slowly approach birds on the water, looking for signs of distress.
We don’t find any injured or oily birds, which I suppose is good news. We do see ostensibly healthy pelicans, gulls, terns, egrets and herons, and we’re followed by three or four dolphins, looking hale enough as they cavort alongside the boat.
Farther east, at the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida, a minor miracle has taken place. On June 4, a female Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle lumbered up the beach and laid eggs in the sand. It is unusual to see this rarest of sea turtles nesting so far east.
The National Park Service determined that the imminent hatchlings -- expected to emerge from the eggs within two or three weeks -- should be moved far from the effects of the oil spill.
So I witness a turtle nest excavation, in which two surgically gloved biologists push away the fine sand and delicately remove and crate 89 golf-ball sized eggs. The eggs are transported in climate-controlled trucks to a NASA incubation facility near Cape Canaveral.
The hatchlings will be released on an as-yet undetermined beach on Florida’s east coast. If all goes swimmingly, some of the females might return to the northern Gulf in 35 years or so to lay eggs of their own.
I am finding that a great amount of resources is being expended, by multiple federal agencies, conservation groups and even BP itself, to save individual creatures. At the same time, journalists have been prevented from getting too close to the worst of the spill, and it could be that people on the ground are aware of the need to give their work the broadest possible airing.
So the bird cleaning and the egg transport, though clearly well-intentioned, also had all the earmarks of a staged event. It sparks an unwelcome cynicism.
Still, the rescue crews, animal handlers and biologists I’ve met show genuine compassion. The fact that they -- and we - - care so much about a single bird or a batch of turtle eggs is one of the few facts that gives one hope for another species: ours.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)