Conservationist: Rescuing Birds Puts Many At Risk

Melissa Block talks with Melanie Driscoll, director of Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society's Louisiana Coastal Initiative, about her efforts to help oil-soaked birds along the Gulf Coast and the dilemmas faced by chasing oiled birds into their habitats.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The toll on wildlife from the ongoing oil spill in the gulf is growing. So far, nearly 50 sea mammals appear to have been killed, over 350 sea turtles and nearly 900 birds. Watching the birds, and trying to figure out how best to help the ones that can be helped, is Melanie Driscoll. She is Louisiana director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society.

I spoke with her last month along the gulf. This week, she's been out in Louisiana's Barataria Bay. And she describes seeing three pelicans on a beach.

Ms. MELANIE DRISCOLL (Director of Bird Conservation, National Audubon Society, Louisiana): They looked quite heavily oiled. They were holding their wings out as if to dry them, but obviously the oil wouldn't dry. They were also preening pretty obsessively. They were taking their bills and rubbing the bills down the feathers, potentially ingesting the oil, trying to clean those feathers so that they could go out and hunt and look for fish and thermoregulate.

The state took a small boat called a pirogue. It's a little Louisiana boat. And as he got within a somewhat reasonable distance, the birds flew away. It took them a bit to get up off the ground. It was fairly labored flight, but they were able to fly away. And they went into the middle of the colony, so any attempt to capture those birds would cause tremendous disturbance.

BLOCK: And that raises a real question, right, of how far do you go if you're trying to rescue oiled birds? At what point do you create more of a danger for the ones that may not be oiled yet?

Ms. DRISCOLL: Well, that's one of the big concerns. So what I had thought I might see was, you know, 40 or 50 percent of the birds on the island covered in oil. And it's nowhere near that yet. Most of the birds on these islands look really pretty clean and pretty good. But there are oiled individuals throughout. There are some adults with oiling. There are royal terns with some oil on them. But they're surrounded by birds that are clean.

So if you approach, say, a nest with an oiled pelican chick in it and you approach - even if you can grab that chick out of the nest - say, with a net - it may have a sibling that's not oiled. And if that sibling jumps out and goes through the roots of the mangroves or through the marsh grass or onto rocks, then that chick is oiled. Well, the nests are so close together, you don't disturb just one nest, you may disturb 20. So at what point have you caused more harm than good?

BLOCK: And interesting, too, that these birds that you describe as pretty heavily oiled, were still able to fly, were able to elude capture.

Ms. DRISCOLL: Right. They're powerful birds. They have strong wings. At some point, those birds will be oiled enough or sick enough to capture. There's a strong criticism that people are waiting until birds are so sick that they might not survive the washing process. But again, you can kill them during the capture if they're too mobile. So it's a real dilemma. Nobody wants to have to make these decisions. Nobody's happy about having to sit and leave oiled birds on an island.

BLOCK: Melanie, I'm looking at a photograph you took of a huge pile of badly oiled boom that's on the water, right near nesting brown pelicans. This is boom that had not been picked up by the cleanup crews down there. What's going on?

Ms. DRISCOLL: Well, that's been one of the greatest frustrations that I think could be fairly easily remedied. That boom got oiled a couple weeks before I was there, and was literally piled up within nests on the islands. When the cleanup crews got out there to pull the boom out, they were supervised by biologists, and they were able to pull the boom out without really disturbing the nesting birds at all.

And it only took about an hour. Why that wasn't done before, at one of the highest-priority nesting sites in Louisiana - that, I can't figure out. That's a severe frustration. We can't clean the oil off with birds there, not without creating a lot of harm. But at the very least, you could pull out the oil boom and put in new, absorbent boom. And that should be being done a lot faster, in my opinion.

BLOCK: Melanie Driscoll is Louisiana director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. Melanie, thanks for talking with us.

Ms. DRISCOLL: Thank you, Melissa.

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