The animal rescuer opened the pelican’s beak and slipped his hand inside to remove stubborn blobs of oil coating the mandible, a seemingly small step in the desperate fight against a massive disaster.
The rapidly spreading Gulf of Mexico oil slick has swallowed up as many birds in the past two days as in the six weeks that followed the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform.
On Thursday, 53 oiled-slicked birds arrive at the Fort Jackson rescue center, including 29 pelicans; 13 more followed by Friday afternoon. Previously, it had received one to four birds per day since the the April 20 catastrophe that killed 11 workers.
It’s now a race against time to remove the birds from the menacing oily grave.
Gusting winds sweeping the ocean have relentlessly pushed the blanket of crude into the lagoons. Queen Bess Island, a brown pelican sanctuary in Barataria Bay, was among the worst hit.
At least 60 birds have been trapped by the mess, including 41 brown pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird. The birds were reintroduced into the bay in 1968, after coming close to extinction.
Once coated with oil, the birds can hardly move. Some struggle in vain, others stop breathing and simply die.
“I saw one getting oiled yesterday,” said Ross Barkhurst, a 37-year-old fisherman who ferried a BP crew in his boat.
“There was a torrent duck, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) inside a marsh, trying to escape from the slick. Then a pelican grabbed it, and it got stuck. It just thought it was food,” Barkhurst added.
“Yesterday was the worst I had seen it. There was grass with oil all over,” he added.
“The main problem for us is the wind that pushes the oil on the surface,” said International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) employee Jay Holcomb, standing among a flock of rescued birds in an air-conditioned hangar in Fort Jackson.
Some 20 specialists are committed to the back-breaking, hour-long work of scrubbing each pelican clean.
“It’s a difficult kind of oil,” Holcomb said. “It takes a lot of scrubbing.”
The pelicans, seagulls and egrets are “stabilized,” said Sharon Taylor, a veterinarian with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
She said most of the oil stuck on the feathers is carefully removed with a towel. Then the birds’ weight and temperature are taken.
Each bird is then fitted with a flexible, plastic tube full of water inside its beak. It stays there two days to help the animal rehydrate.
Right after the fitting, the bird is washed in warm water and detergent. Then it is dried and allowed to rest for four to seven days until it makes its feathers waterproof again.
If all goes well, it is eventually released again in the wild.
The survival rate of oiled birds in Fort Jackson barely makes it past the 50-70 percent. Many die as a result of the oil or the stress it causes.
But the 53 birds that arrived Thursday were still alive on Friday, said veterinarian Heather Nevill.
She hopes that after several weeks in ocean water, the spilled crude has lost most of its toxicity through evaporation.
“The oil is fairly weathered. The animals don’t smell too much of oil,” Nevill said.
But what bothers Taylor are the long-term effects from the mixture of crude oil and chemical dispersants BP is using to break it up.
“It could have an impact with the future breeding season,” she said.