UPDATE: Chain requirements lifted on some North State highways

Triage expanding to accommodate large number of oily birds

Dee Tubbs and Tammy Sharp

Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research will be expanding its operation here in order to accommodate the numbers of birds it expects to receive in the future as the oil spill in the Gulf continues to grow, said Rebecca Dunne, facility manager for the organization that's been contracted by BP to help with oil spill clean up.

Plaquemines parish has recently given Tri-State permission to expand and build additional cages to house more birds. By the end of the week of June 12, the center had received hundreds of birds, with more on the way.

"Once we get 500 birds in here, it really is pumping, and it takes lots of resources to push it through," Dunne said of the the bird triage set up at the Marine Response Recovery Center.

She, along with about 50 others from various organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, are working out of the MRRC to save as many birds as possible as quickly as possible.

But the cleaning process is a big undertaking that causes a lot of stress to the birds.

The brown and white pelicans, the gulls and terns, even cattle egrets that come in are endangered not only from the oil that coats their feathers, but also from the stress that results from being cleaned.

"That's the worst 45 minutes of their life," Dunne said. The cleaning process can take up to 45 minutes for a large bird like a pelican. The process also involves many people, about 300 gallons of hot water and a lot of Dawn detergent. The end result is not just a clean bird, but also most certainly a bird suffering from the intense trauma from being handled so much.

Once the birds are cleaned, they go into a drying room, where they have the opportunity to calm down, and then to a cage outside where they eat a lot of fish, swim, preen their feathers back into place and continue to recover from the stress of being cleaned.

The aim is to get the birds in and out within five to seven days, Dunne said.

After a final check from the veterinarian, the birds are released somewhere on the east coast of Florida.

"The oil isn't projected to go there yet," said Dunne, crossing her fingers.

Birds such as brown pelicans, the Louisiana state bird and a species that was only recently taken off the endangered list, are likely to be exposed to oil as they float on the water’s surface. Oiled birds can lose the ability to fly, dive for food or float on the water, which could lead to drowning.

Oil also interferes with the water repellency of feathers and can cause hypothermia in the right conditions.

As birds groom themselves, they can ingest and inhale the oil on their bodies. While ingestion can kill animals immediately, more often it results in lung, liver and kidney damage which can lead to death.

The Marine Response Recovery Center, built in response to the Exxon Valdez disaster more than 20 years ago, is a hive of activity after two decades of little to no use, said Dale Benoit, a local businessman in Plaquemines Parish, whose been involved with much of the negotiations surrounding the oil spill clean up.

"When oil companies were forced to create a fund to clean up spills [after the Exxon Valdez spill], this facility was built," he said. This building, and others like it along the Gulf Coast, were filled with boom and other apparatus to help respond to an oil spill. But over the years, the parish-owned buildings fell into disrepair. Supplies dry-rotted and were never replaced. What resulted was an inability to respond early to the spill.

Dunne, however, has been doing the same sort of work for about five years, she said. Some of her colleagues, with her here, have been working in the oil spill clean-up business for more than 20 years.

"A big [oil spill] happens every few years," she said. "There are lots of tiny oil spills all the time." Most of those spills are inland.

Unfortunately, not all of the birds make it. But even those birds are handled with care. According to Erin Gaweva with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS), the dead birds are frozen so that they cn be autopsied later. The autopsy will help determine if oil is what actually killed the birds.

About 500 dead birds have been received at the center as of the first week in June, said Gaweva.

All of the animals, dead or alive, are considered evidence. The information collected will be used in the future to help better understand the impact of an oil spill on migratory birds and refuge lands.

But beyond that, FWS will likely hold someone responsible for the dead birds.

According to its website, www.fws.gov, once the magnitude of injuries caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been quantified for "all species and lands for which the FWS has Trustee responsibility. ...The FWS will collaborate with our co-trustees in seeking damages that will fully restore the injured resources to their prerelease conditions."

Leesville Daily Leader