Thursday, June 10, 2010

Report from Melanie Driscoll of Audubon about Bird Rescue

Thank you all for your concern about the birds and the bird rescue effort, especially in the wake of last Friday’s heartbreaking photos of very heavily oiled birds. I have heard and I understand the concerns expressed by caring individuals, but everything I have seen and learned from the field assures me that the bird rescue is being handled professionally and well.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) are leading the field rescue effort. The land transport is handled by LDWF, SPCA, and Louisiana State Animal Response Team (LSART), and facilitated by volunteers from Audubon. The bird stabilization, washing, and rehabilitation are managed by Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research ( and International Bird Rescue Research Center (

I have known many of the USFWS and LDWF field team members for years. They are dedicated professionals working up to two-week shifts, and are on planning calls on their couple of days off before they head out to the field again. Some are leaving family members who are ill or have other needs. The Tri-State and IBRRC staff left their homes and families for what they hoped would be one month. They have just doubled their staff to handle the increasing numbers of rescued birds, and the first people on the ground have no idea when they may return to normal lives or their homes. Your hearts may be breaking when you see the pictures, but please remember that the front-line responders have to handle oiled, stressed, and sometimes dying birds every day. They are always professional, always caring, and their hearts are breaking too. Their dedication and work deserve our respect and our gratitude.

I know there have been a lot of reports from people who see oiled birds and are distressed that those birds have not yet been rescued. (You can help by calling the oiled wildlife hotline EVERY time you see oiled wildlife: 1-866-557-1401.) There are many reasons you may see or hear of oiled birds in habitat. First, many of the lightly oiled birds cannot be captured safely, and some are even gone from their reported locations before rescue personnel arrive. Rescue personnel and agencies are also in the unenviable position of having to leave some oiled birds in colonies in order to not harm the colony success to rescue some individuals. Going into an active colony to capture oiled birds leaves eggs and young exposed to intense heat, increased risk of predation, and may even push healthy adults out into oiled habitats. The 120-plus miles of habitat estimated to be impacted by oil is a measurement across the coastline – as if that were a linear feature. Given the many delta lobes and the fringed marshes and islands full of cuts, canals, and channels, there are many more miles of coastline to actually search for birds. This is a massive operation, and there is not adequate way to saturate the habitat to look for birds without causing more harm through the impact of boat traffic and human disturbance. Finally, if you are out looking for oiled birds during an oil spill, you should expect that you will see them. It is upsetting, but you are providing a helpful service to searchers and the birds themselves if you promptly and accurately report their location. Stay nearby until rescue teams arrive, if you can. When a report comes in, a team follows up on it very quickly, and each report is checked out. If you are doing surveys or see oiled wildlife, please report it immediately, carefully describing your location. That is one valuable way that citizens can help the birds.

Many people want to help rescue the birds, but bird rescue is dangerous for birds and for the rescuers. Many of these birds are large and have large bills, some with hooks or serrations on them. As much as people want to help, the birds perceive humans as a threat. They may strike out to defend themselves, injuring people. Also, many birds are already under severe physical stress, and inexpert capture attempts or handling may directly cause their death. The cleaning is also very stressful for birds – more for some than for others. Any group or individual that attempts to clean birds without the research and knowledge of how to do so appropriately risks killing any birds that are handled. The vets and wildlife rehabilitators working at the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers across the coast are the best people to clean and rehabilitate the birds.

Paraprofessionals, such as vet techs and people with at least 3 months of wildlife rehabilitation experience, are encouraged to sign up through the LSART website ( to help at the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. More than 30 people per day are now needed to clean cages and to prepare food for birds.

The response is continuously shifting to adapt to the actual conditions. When birds were being brought to Grand Isle and having to undergo a long ground transport to the rehabilitation center, a stabilization trailer was set up to hydrate, feed and stabilize the birds to improve their odds of surviving the trip. Shorter boat transport was also arranged. As birds are brought in more frequently to new areas, new ground transportation is arranged, and Audubon volunteers are brought in to facilitate communication and transport needs. As more oil hits shores, more staff are added to the rescue and rehabilitation effort. New techniques have been developed to capture birds with less stress to them. Audubon and many local partners are ready to help as requests come from USFWS and the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers.

Audubon ( and the Gulf Response Involvement Team (GRIT) ( have well over 20,000 volunteers registered to help with these efforts. As needs increase, more of these volunteers are being deployed. Audubon is also working with high-level USFWS personnel to help integrate the oiled bird monitoring data into the official Natural Resources Damage Assessment – the official process by which overall damage from the spill will be calculated. We are also working with partners to develop and staff other monitoring efforts, and will work with agencies to help ensure that bird monitoring will be done across the Gulf Coast for years to come to monitor the impact and recovery of bird populations.

There is a report on oiled wildlife numbers every day on the Deepwater Horizon Incident website: . There are several useful things to note in the actual files. First, the numbers will always lag behind the captures by a day or sometimes a little more. Birds are brought in, then must be stabilized and evaluated before they can be assigned to a category. The counts are compiled at the end of a day or the beginning of the next day. Also, it is valuable to note that, of the birds collected dead, many show no signs of oiling at all. This reflects several realities. Many birds die annually and would never be found without such extensive effort to rescue oiled birds – more people looking means more dead birds are found. There may be indirect ways, though, that the oil spill contributes to those numbers. Increased activity in the habitat for protection, rescue, and cleaning efforts could displace, stress, or kill some birds. Also, the release lags behind the cleaning – there is not currently a number in the report that indicates how many of the oiled live birds have been cleaned or how many have survived cleaning. The lags in information make it more difficult to evaluate the success of the efforts overall.

Melanie Driscoll

Director of Bird Conservation
Louisiana Coastal Initiative

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