Jennifer Hanna volunteers with Audubon as a bird transport liaison. Photo courtesy Jennifer Hanna
When the oil spill began, Jennifer Hanna was one of the thousands of people that went online and signed up with Audubon as a volunteer. “I’m an animal lover, and I figured that they needed local volunteers that they wouldn’t have to put up in hotels or find housing for,” says Hanna, who owns the New Orleans restaurant Sucre with her husband. She was called up within a week or so, and ever since then has been making the hour and fifteen minute drive to Delta Marina in Empire, Louisiana, two to four days a week to transfer oiled birds from boats to the trucks that carry them to be cleaned. Audubon spoke with Hanna this week as she was waiting out a rainstorm, taking cover under an awning with fishermen and bird rescuers who would resume searching for more oiled birds as soon as the weather cleared.
What’s a typical day like for you?
The boats go out at 9 or 9:30 in the morning, and I get here at a quarter to 10. I call the coordinators to let them know I’m here, then I wait. I flag down the boats that have birds—they’re typically flat boats with a canopy that keep the birds shaded, and you look for the bird cages. They pull up, hand me the crates, and I make sure that they have the coordinates of where they found the birds and the name of whoever captured them. The majority of the time they’re brown pelicans—they’re really trying to save them because they were an endangered species.
This pelican was washed in four specialized tubs, each containing a different concentration of Dawn detergent. Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon Magazine
A crate will have up to three birds in it. I carry it to the truck; if it isn’t there, I carry it to a shaded area and I’ll call Beth (a bird rescue coordinator) and let her know that we have birds here. We just try to keep the birds calm, they’re so traumatized as it is. We try to not let everybody come up and stare at them. We load them up in the truck and they take them away to get washed.
How many birds do you transport a day?
For the first couple of weeks we had 20-40 birds a day coming in. It’s drastically decreased over the last two weeks here. It’s slowed down to maybe two birds a day. You just hope they’re catching all the birds they can.
Has anything about the birds surprised you?
Something that really took me aback at first was that I had no idea that pelicans have all different eye colors, like people. These pelicans come in and they stare at you with these bright blue eyes. And then another will have green eyes, and another one brown eyes. I expected them all to have brown eyes. But you see these birds, especially the ones with extremely expressive blue eyes, and they’re so beautiful, and they’re drenched in oil.
How do you deal with handling these traumatized birds?
I came in and was all excited and nervous at the same time. And then these really, really oily birds started coming in, and that’s so heartbreaking. Some of them
An oiled brown pelican refuses to eat the offered capelin. Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon Magazine
are completely covered and look like they’re in a puddle of oil in the crate. It really is heartbreaking. You kind of have to put yourself in a different place and say, Ok, I’m not going to cry about this. For the first two days I had to tell myself, You can do this. Just take birds and get them where they need to go and keep them as calm as possible. And as cool as possible, because with the heat index down here it can get up to like 115 degrees, and they’re covered in oil. You have to think, C’mon, let’s get this done.
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At the end of day when you go home, it’s just so overwhelming. But you also feel so good because you’re a part of something that’s so much bigger than you. It’s completely overwhelming but gratifying at the same time. I have a great job, but I feel like it’s important to do this on my days off, and I enjoy it. I’ve gotten to know the different fishermen, and this kind of feels like home. I’ll help until they don’t need me any more.
For more photos of oiled birds being cleaned, click here. For an interview with Audubon's Melanie Driscoll about mobilizing thousands of volunteers, click here. And here, Audubon's Greg Butcher explains why it's so difficult to keep birds away from oil.