A Gulf Icon, In Oil

An oil-covered brown pelican on the East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast.
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In a recent blog post for Defenders of Wildlife, environmental photographer Krista Schlyer looked at the case of brown pelicans in Louisiana—a species particularly vulnerable to the spill, especially now as they are caring for their young. She noted that the pelican appears on the Louisiana license plate—in fact, it's the state bird. In the 1970s, the brown pelican was nearly pushed into extinction thanks to widespread contamination from the pesticide DDT. The bird was only taken off the endangered species list in November 2009.

Now, brown pelicans are struggling to survive with feathers and nests coated in oil from the disastrous Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion in the Gulf, and there's little anyone can do. Schlyer took part in a wildlife rescue operation, but one that's inherently fraught with difficulty. While she can see oil-covered pelican chicks on Bird Island from afar, rescuers will only approach if such birds are isolated. "They run the risk," she writes, "in trying to save the birds from the oil, of threatening a whole generation of brown pelicans…"

An article in Agence France-Presse (AFP) echoed the frustrations of these pelican rescue efforts. The birds will adamantly fight being captured, clumsy capturing may mean trampling eggs underfoot, and the presence of rescuers can send nesting pelicans away, "exposing their fledglings and eggs to the sweltering sun." Even reaching the nests, amid mangrove roots and swampy bayous is difficult to impossible. As such, only the most oil-drenched birds, those unable to move, are captured and cleaned.

So far, AFP reports, 530 oiled birds have been captured and 725 bird carcasses have been collected. Many more will die as a result of the spill. Doug Inkely, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation told the New York Times that the oil spill could finally end the bird's recent recovery.

SOURCES: Agence France-Presse; Defenders of Wildlife; New York Times.