After writing about our visit to the bird rehab center in Louisiana last week, I promised to write a second post going into more detail about the cleaning process for oiled birds the next day. Well, I ended up on a boat for a couple of days, and the week got away from me – so here’s my long-promised update!
Jay Holcomb's International Bird Rescue Research Center is managing the cleaning process for most of the birds taken off the water after the oil spill. So far, they’ve had nearly 600 birds go through the process, mostly pelicans. The space the rescue center inhabits is a large warehouse in the bayou, but they’re already running out of room: While we were there, a worker was building new outdoor cages.
There are no interior walls in the warehouse, which has an assembly-line precision: The birds arrive in pet carriers and are quickly evaluated by a vet in scrubs and rubber boots in one corner known as the medical station, and then they’re placed in plywood-sided compartments with other birds. The birds we saw were all pretty well covered in oil, and in varying states of distress. They can be hypothermic, starved or suffering from other secondary ailments related to the stress of being oiled. The more extreme cases are put aside in separate cages where they will be closely monitored.
We weren't allowed to take photos inside the warehouse, and for good reason. The birds are so traumatized by oiling and the transport to a new, strange place that being approached by strangers making noises at them is the last thing they need. I peeked into one cage of new arrivals and the gummy oil-covered pelicans startled a little, but they probably had little energy for a bigger reaction.
After being evaluated and tagged, the birds move to the cleaning station. There, they are placed in large metal tubs filled with a 1 percent Dawn solution. Rather than scrubbing the birds, the workers agitate the water – all the while keeping an eye on the bird to make sure it's not getting too stressed. It takes about three bottles of Dawn to clean one bird, and the workers will keep going until the water coming off the bird runs clear.
Next, the birds are placed in a room with blow dryers typically used by dog groomers. They’ll stay in the drying room for a few days, and will preen themselves in the process to get all their feathers back in place.
Lastly, the birds are moved to an outside pen to await release. Those were the birds we got to see more closely: about two dozen brown pelicans, waiting in a makeshift pen outside the warehouse. Unlike the sticky, exhausted animals inside, they were bright-eyed and calm.
Jay’s eventual plan is to move the actual rehab center to a larger space near New Orleans, and keep the bayou warehouse for stabilizing birds as they come off the water. But that will have to wait for the next crisis. In the meantime, hundreds of birds have a chance at survival thanks to his dedicated and highly-trained crew.
When I met with the Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday, their biologist told me the number of oiled birds coming in had peaked – perhaps indicating that the cleanup mission along the coast is becoming more successful. But the Gulf of Mexico is a major thoroughfare for migrating birds, and the oil spill is not yet contained. The rescue center could be busy for weeks or months yet.
Coming up, I'll write about our excursion with NOAA to try to find oil lurking under the Gulf's surface.