Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update: Thoughts on the release of young rehabbed pelicans

For me today, the oil spill has come full circle.

Just three months ago, I visited islands and a beach in southeastern Louisiana. Brightly colored orange and yellow booms were anchored around important pelican, gull, heron, and tern nesting colonies. It seemed the world awaited, with bated breath, the approach of oil that had been gushing from the Macondo well for over a week. Pelicans were carrying sticks, building nests, preparing to lay eggs.

nesting Brown Pelicans by Melanie Driscoll
Nesting Brown Pelicans, earlier in the year. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

Sanderlings, heading north during spring migration to their Arctic breeding grounds, were hopped up on hormones, chasing each other and much larger birds through the surf.

The first tarballs, the size of my thumbnail, were washing up on our beaches. Fishing closures were starting. The press, eager to break the story, were scurrying about on boats, encroaching on nesting islands to get that coveted first shot of an oiled egg, peering off the dock in Venice looking for tidal waves of oil to wash ashore.

Three months ago. A quarter of a year. More than half of a hot Louisiana summer. A lifetime.

Last Friday, I watched the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries release 45 rehabilitated young Brown Pelicans onto an island in southwest Louisiana. Yes, Louisiana. Now that the gushing well has been stopped, and oil has still not hit Cameron Parish, they felt that was a safe enough release site.

released young Brown Pelicans by Melanie Driscoll
Young, rehabilitated Brown Pelicans just released in Cameron Parish, La. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

These pelicans have come so far. Laid in unoiled nests, hatched from fairly clean eggs, incubated by dedicated parents, fed as nestlings fish from waters that may be clean, or may be full of oil and dispersants. Oiled, at some point, by parents’ breast feathers or by moving through oiled habitats. Captured, transported, stabilized, transported, cleaned, rehabilitated, transported again.

Freed! Some flew immediately out into Gulf waters, others stood on shore and stretched, then swam and ate fish provided by the state biologists. With a numbered red band on one leg and the upper bill painted green for identification, the gangly youngsters made one more step toward independence.

I thought I should feel joy, but mostly I felt apprehension. These birds will be guided largely by instinct, and they can follow adult pelicans that are nesting in numbers on that island. But the Gulf is so big, and they are so young. And we don’t know what is out there. Merely one-quarter of one of the world’s largest oil spills is still a lot of oil. Nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersant is an immense and terrifying experiment.

On my return trip home, I stopped at Rutherford Beach. A Sanderling fed near gulls and other shorebirds at the surf’s edge, running jauntily, undaunted, in and out of the waves feathered edges. Such a short time for such a small bird to have flown north, found a mate, defended a territory, raised young, and flown back to Louisiana beaches, through so many hazards, and this, just one more.

A family swam in the warm, shallow water – two adults and two children. A Humvee sat on the beach, which is now as hard and flat as a highway, packed and trampled by all of the frantic protection efforts. Thunder rumbled nearby, ominous, unheralded by lightning.

All day, I wanted to feel joy at the release of the baby pelicans, the return of migrant shorebirds, and the carefree water play of coastal visitors. Maybe I am just tired – it has been a long few months. But I can see the damage to habitat. And I do not know what I cannot see – what is dispersed in our waters, what has died unseen, what may not ever be healthy enough to reproduce.

The press are largely gone because the oil is capped. Some people have already declared this over, and overblown – not even a disaster. I know that we cannot understand the impact of this spill on birds for many more months, perhaps years. For many creatures, we will never know.

I think of the young pelicans, now out in the rain, thunder, and lightning. It is right that they are free. It is good that they have been captured, cleaned, and rehabilitated. But they face such an uncertain future. For those that survive their riskiest first year, they may live 25 to 30 years. I hope that we never put these babies at risk from this kind of spill again. Good luck, little ones.

banded young Brown Pelican by Melanie Driscoll
A young pelican flies after being released. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

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