Bird washers hard at work as Gulf spill toll grows

VENICE, La., June 5 Sat Jun 5, 2010 7:08pm EDT

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VENICE, La., June 5 (Reuters) - About 25 brown pelicans shivered and tried to clean their oil-soaked feathers on Saturday in a pen at a Louisiana bird rehabilitation center, as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill's impact on wildlife worsened.

The number of birds brought to the Fort Jackson Bird Rehabilitation Center in Venice, Louisiana, where workers hired by BP wash the birds, has jumped in the past two days as a huge oil slick edges closer to vital nesting and breeding grounds.

A total of 157 birds found in state waters have been treated at the center, where they receive a vigorous scrubbing, since the oil started leaking from a ruptured BP (BP.L) (BP.N) well almost seven weeks ago.

But 66 birds, mostly brown pelicans, arrived in just the past two days, raising alarm bells. The brown pelican is Louisiana's state bird and only was taken off the endangered species list just last year amid attempts to restore its population.

"This could be a major setback for that effort," said James Harris, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has spent the last 20 years working with others to restore Louisiana's brown pelican population.

"I recognize that these are not my pelicans, but it's hard not to be personally vested in it."

The birds brought to the center are plucked from oil soaked waters that now ring Louisiana's fragile barrier islands and marshes. The feathers of oiled birds become matted and separate, leaving them vulnerable to heat or cold.

They also try to preen, or clean their feathers with their beak or bill, risking a sickening or fatal ingestion of oil.

The marshy areas around the rehabilitation center are so far untouched by the slick, and are teeming with birds. Snowy-white egrets peck at the ground or scan shallow waters for food, while gulls and terns fly overhead.

But on Saturday, brisk winds pushed oil over some of the containment booms meant to keep the crude away from the coast, ringing a nearby brown pelican rookery and leaving the birds standing in a watery crude oil soup.

"We are receiving birds today, but we don't know how many," Jay Holcomb, executive director for the International Bird Rescue Research Center told reporters. "This oil is really gooey," he added.

BATH OF LIFE

Once brought to the center, the birds are treated for dehydration and other conditions and fed before the difficult clean-up operation begins.

Because the crude that clings to the pelicans' feathers is so sticky, they are first bathed in warmed vegetable oil.

In the next step, workers armed with toothbrushes and dishwashing liquid scrub the birds for about 45 minutes. The brown pelicans, which have wingspans as wide as 8 feet (2.44 meters) typically struggle during the process.

After the birds are dried and receive a health check, they are banded for identification purposes and flown to Florida by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The spill's toll on the Gulf coast bird population will not be known for some time -- for example, some rehabilitated birds may survive but might not breed again.

"We really won't know much until the next breeding season," Tom Bancroft, chief scientist for the National Audubon Society, said in a telephone interview.

According to the latest report issued by the U.S. government on Saturday, 547 birds across the Gulf coast have been collected dead, but not all of those animals showed signs of contact with oil.

But the government's numbers tell only part of the story. "Some (birds) just sink under the water and will never be counted," Bancroft said.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Irwin; Editing by Ros Krasny and Paul Simao)

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