Coverage: Gulf Coast Oil Spill
PELICAN ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Fla. (AP) — Flying into sunny skies above clean water, two birds that were rescued and cleansed of gunk after a massive oil spill on the Gulf Coast were released Monday in the first of what could be many wildlife relocations.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the birds at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Vero Beach on the Atlantic coast.
The Northern Gannet, named Lucky by rescuers, flew away into the estuary. The Brown Pelican, named Pelly, floated in the water a few minutes before stretching its wings and departing. Both had been treated at the bird rehabilitation facility at Fort Jackson, La.
Fish and Wildlife Service veterinarian Sharon Taylor said 10 birds have been found dead from the oil so far and three others that were found alive were still in rehabilitation. Experts say it's impossible to predict how many will be affected, and it depends on where the oil travels.
The rescued birds will be moved away from the expected path of the spill, to make sure they aren't injured again.
"I think right now we're erring on the side of caution. We have so few birds impacted, we want to make sure those individuals have the opportunity of being released in a site that won't be impacted by oil," said Heidi Stout, director of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, a Delaware-based group that was hired to handle the rescue.
The two birds were flown by plane Monday from Fort Jackson to Florida.
Lucky was found April 27 in the gulf near the source of the leak. Rescuers reached out to him with a pole and he jumped on it. Thin and dehydrated, he was given oral fluids and Pepto-Bismol for any oil he may have ingested.
The pelican was discovered May 3 on Stone Island on the Louisiana coast.
The refuge was chosen as the release site because it's located in the Indian River Lagoon, described as the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States. It has a large population of gannets and pelicans and is far from where the oil slick is likely to drift.
"This is one of the high points, it's seeing them released," Taylor said after completing the 3½-hour flight on a small plane with the birds and sending them back into the wild.
Helping birds make a recovery is not an easy process.
Rescuers often use dishwashing soap and detergent to scrub the oil out of the feathers so they can regain their waterproof ability. Birds also are given a swab to see how much toxic oil they may have ingested, and they are rehydrated.
Boats and helicopters have been scouring the gulf for more oiled birds since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, spewing oil from the site about 45 miles off the coast of Venice, La.
At least 3.5 million gallons of oil are believed to have leaked since the April 20 blast killed 11 people.
Dr. Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, said it could take weeks — even months — before the impact on the area's birds is truly known.
"It's impossible to project right now," Butcher said. "It could be a few, it could be a very large number."