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A Little Bird Mired In Oil Illuminates A Big Problem

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A Little Bird Mired In Oil Illuminates A Big Problem


A Little Bird Mired In Oil Illuminates A Big Problem

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I'm Michele Norris.


I'm Robert Siegel. And this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

NORRIS: Sometimes a single picture has a way of capturing an important news story in a way that remains fixed in the public imagination for days, months or even years. That may well have happened today, when people around the world picked up newspapers or flipped on computer screens to see a heartbreaking photo of a single bird covered in a thick layer of gunk that resembled melted chocolate. That gunk, of course, was oil, and that bird was found along the coast of East Grand Terre Island in Louisiana.

For more on the effort to save the seabirds that are showing up all over the Gulf covered in oil, we turn now to Jay Holcomb. He's executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, and he joins us from Fort Jackson, Louisiana. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JAY HOLCOMB (Executive Director, International Bird Rescue Research Center): Thank you.

NORRIS: That bird we just mentioned in the lead has already become an iconic and quite sad image. It's hard to make out exactly what kind of bird that is. Do you know anything about that particular animal?

Mr. HOLCOMB: It was a laughing gull. They're the beautiful little gulls. They're very small and they've very delicate little birds. But when they're covered with oil like that, as you saw, they're pretty pathetic. And that bird is here.

NORRIS: That bird is - in what kind of shape is that bird in?

Mr. HOLCOMB: It's in decent condition. In other words, the good thing about him being captured was that this bird was like many of the others yesterday, was captured before it was able to get hypothermic and completely exhausted, drown, or anything like that. So even though it's covered in oil and it's tired, it's in relatively decent shape.

NORRIS: It seems like you all have reached a turning point in this disaster. It sounds like you're seeing a lot more of these birds drenched head to toe in oil.

Mr. HOLCOMB: Right. Yeah. The turning point happened yesterday when a big - we were warned that a big - they called it a big chunk of oil, meaning a slick of oil broke off from the main big slick, you know, that's out there where the well is leaking. And we knew it was coming to shore and within hours after that, we started getting calls. People started picking up these birds that were really diving into it trying to catch fish.

NORRIS: So they didn't - they had no idea. They were just diving in and at that point they were caught.

Mr. HOLCOMB: Exactly. The pelicans and the gulls, they don't see oil as anything other than something floating on the surface like sea foam or plants or whatever. And the fish, unfortunately, will actually go under the oil to hide, thinking it's the same thing. And the pelicans don't know the difference and they dive into it. Therefore, become oiled and, you know the rest.

NORRIS: How many birds did you wind up recovering by the end of the day and how many have you seen so far today?

Mr. HOLCOMB: Okay. So, what we received here at the end of the day was 29 pelicans, brown pelicans and 15 laughing gulls. And today I know they're catching more, I just don't know at this point really how many.

NORRIS: Can you save most of those birds?

Mr. HOLCOMB: Well, you know, here's the thing, you know, it depends on the variables. If you can get them in time and we did catch these birds in time and we can get the oil off of them, and the birds survive the stress of this, yeah, absolutely. We do it all the time.

It all depends on the individual animal, if they've ingested a lot of oil, if we can get the oil off them. This is really gooey oil and it's not easy to get off. We really have to scrub the bird to get it off. And that doesn't bode well for them and us. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. And we're already releasing birds from earlier on and we know that some will survive, we just can't really predict how many.

NORRIS: Jay Holcomb, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. HOLCOMB: Thank you.

NORRIS: Jay Holcomb is the executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center. He joined us from Fort Jackson, Louisiana.

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