DEBORAH AMOS, host:
The Gulf oil spill is now threatening one of the best wildlife recovery stories ever - brown pelicans. In the 1960s, the pesticide DDT almost drove the birds to extinction. Brown pelicans graduated from the endangered species list last year.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
(Soundbite of pelicans)
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: The small marshy spots of land near Grand Isle, Louisiana are chock full of pelicans. From the water you see lots of heads sticking out of the grasses. It seems as if every square foot is taken, either by an adult sitting on a nest or a gangly white chick waiting for Mom or Dad to bring back some fish.
But oil has invaded this nursery scene. Pools that look like dark chocolate syrup fringe the islands. Sticky mats of oil as small as a bottle cap or as large as a living room float just offshore where the birds feed.
Biologists say they've seen pelicans desert areas where oil has shown up, but not nesting islands like the one we're looking at, called Queen Bess.
Mr. MICHAEL CARLOSS (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries): These birds are on nests. They're committed to being here.
SHOGREN: Michael Carloss is the top biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Mr. CARLOSS: Parental instinct is extremely strong, and these birds are going to stay around this island.
SHOGREN: Carloss looks through binoculars at a bird that looks like it's been dipped in tar.
Mr. CARLOSS: You can see the oil on that thing very clearly. With the sunlight, you can see it glistening. He's caked up pretty good.
SHOGREN: Carloss says increasing numbers of pelican parents are getting coated when they dive into the water to fish. If they make it back to the nests and spread the oil, it can be deadly for eggs. More and more parents are not making it back. Without a parent, no stand-in will incubate an egg or feed a chick.
So far the oil has spared some nesting islands. Still, Carloss fears what's to come.
Mr. CARLOSS: I like to kind of refer it to as almost a demon sitting off shore, you know, lurking, some kind of evil nemesis, you know, waiting to come and impact. And you know, and we're just getting small tastes of it. And that's the scary part.
SHOGREN: The flimsy-looking bright-orange boom that surrounds the island has let lots of oil through. Since April, Carloss has begged in vain for beefier booms.
Now he's joined a small force of biologists rescuing birds covered in oil. So far they've picked up nearly 400 live ones, most in recent days. More than 600 dead ones have also been found. Rescuers don't want to grab a bird that might still be able to feed a chick, so they only take the ones that cannot fly.
Mr. CARLOSS: They're at a point where if they stay out much longer, they'll essentially starve to death.
SHOGREN: We pull up to a boat of rescuers in white protective suits. Biologist Kathleen Paulette has been catching suffering birds for days.
Ms. KATHLEEN PAULETTE (Biologist): They're very oiled. Yeah, I don't know if I can talk about it, really. It's horrible.
SHOGREN: To catch them, Paulette and other biologists plunge into the water with nets at the ready. Some birds try to escape, but most are caught in moments.
Ms. PAULETTE: They don't really fight. So you just make sure they can breathe and get them in a box and get them to where they can be washed off.
(Soundbite of water spraying)
SHOGREN: That's the sound of a bird being sprayed with a concentrated solution of Dawn dish detergent. It's in a warehouse-turned-bird bathhouse, a 40 minute boat trip from where the birds were rescued.
It takes three people about 45 minutes to scrub them clean. Outside about a dozen clean pelicans huddle together.
Jay Holcomb directs the International Bird Rescue Research Center. He says these birds should do okay, but he believes most oiled birds will never be rescued, and for every adult saved, a tragedy is left behind.
Mr. JAY HOLCOMB (International Bird Rescue Research Center): The birds with the white heads are the adults, so they may have babies, and if they're here, that means the babies are going to die.
SHOGREN: Holcomb says other adults will be too busy feeding their own young to take on orphaned chicks.
The federal government has just started releasing some of the clean birds off the coast of Florida. It hopes the parents do not try to fly back to their nests in Louisiana's oily waters.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.