Compassion And Caution Collide Amid Battle To Save A Generation Of Birds

Published: Jun 17, 2010
Baton Rouge, LA - 
"It's heartbreaking," said Louisiana Audubon bird expert Melanie Driscoll, after accompanying state rescuers as they reluctantly left individual oiled birds behind in coastal island breeding colonies, for fear of driving healthy ones into the toxic brew. "They're making incredibly difficult decisions in order to save the greatest number of birds. I can't second guess any of the tough choices they made today." 

With untold birds in the gulf already oiled or facing exposure as the disaster expands, the National Audubon Society warns of lost generations of birds in the years to come. Without mature birds to care for them, many eggs will fail and newly-hatched chicks will also die. Others may fall victim to trampling from well-intentioned clean-up workers or the stress of relocation. Even those that survive may fail to acquire the skills needed for long-term success. And the impacts could continue for years. 

"Preventing the loss of generations is why it is so important that entire colonies not be jeopardized to save a few individuals," said Driscoll. 

"I know that individual birds are suffering, and this is intolerable. But destroying nest success entirely, trying to hand-rear thousands of chicks, causing more to be oiled and stressed, causing more to die, is also intolerable." 

Writing for Audubon magazine about her travels with rescuers, Driscoll notes that conditions can change at any time, making it possible to give oiled birds a second chance:

The decision to not rescue birds, to not pull chicks from islands or nests, could change for any site on any day. There is a colony of Royal Terns near the water at Queen Bess Island, and many of the chicks are oiled, some heavily. Without encroaching and disturbing the colony, it is difficult to tell how many nests may not have hatched yet. Any day, a decision could be made to send several rescuers in with nets to capture as many of the chicks as they can capture. This would certainly be very stressful for the chicks and the adults, and would require hand-rearing the chicks, who might then imprint on humans. However, when the benefit to the colony is greater than the threat, this option will be exercised. If this rescue is attempted, I expect that it will be carefully planned, will occur in the morning before the heat causes undue stress on the birds, and will likely involve a lot of personnel to reduce capture time and stress on birds.

Audubon's Mississippi-based Volunteer Response Center is supporting both bird rescue and broader recovery efforts through thousands of people registered and organized to assist with transportation, creating nets and other needed tools to help in the capture of oiled birds, bird identification, and clerical duties (volunteers are not solicited for the hazardous and highly-technical job of cleaning birds). 

As alarming images of oiled and dying birds bring the tragedy home, state and federal agencies face mounting criticism and protests from would-be volunteers who believe they are being prevented from helping. While Audubon says it cannot yet assess the overall effectiveness of the government-led rescue efforts, the organization is calling on lead agencies to work more closely with independent scientists and to be more receptive to recommendations from outside bird rehabilitation experts, as well as to communicate more effectively about how the bird rescue and rehabilitation is being organized and managed. 

Melanie Driscoll is Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon's Louisiana Coastal Initiative.

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The National Audubon Society saves birds and their habitats throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more at www.audubon.org and @audubonsociety.

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