For bird rescuers in gulf, the toughest part is realizing many can't be saved

The oil spill has had an enormous impact on the wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. Concerned citizens and animal activists are trying to help by rescuing and rehabilitating injured birds, turtles and other creatures.
By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

GRAND ISLE, LA. -- The oil is crawling now through the marshes, as if it knows where it is going. Creeping ominously, eating through paint on boats, staining sea grass black.

Michael Seymour is on a bird rescue boat, circling the islands of Barataria Bay.

"This is the land of the brown pelican," says Seymour, an ornithologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. He raises his binoculars and spots one sitting in oily water near Bird Island II. Crude covers the bird's head and back. "That may be a bird we can send someone in to get," Seymour says. But there is the trace of a question in his voice.

Another boat approaches. It is full of volunteers who call themselves Defenders of the Coast. One man shouts with urgency over the water to Seymour: "We saw a couple of oiled birds over there that didn't look like they could fly." The man looks worried.

"Why don't you take me to them," Seymour hollers back.

The Defenders' boat pivots. Seymour's follows. Then both stop. Seymour raises his binoculars again. Another pelican sits in oil. The white cap on the bird's head has turned amber. The bird is oiled, but is it oiled enough?

This is the bird dance in this hot bayou, two months after the start of one of the worst oil spills in history. The question has become: How much oil is too much? Should one try to catch an oiled bird and risk damaging nests or sending chicks scattering into more oil?

Oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico unceasingly despite the nation's most sophisticated technology working to stop it. People watched and read the news, felt queasy, tried not to think about it. Tried to just go on with life. But then the catastrophe moved toward the shore and they could not escape the images of birds covered in oil, like one by Associated Press photographer Charlie Riedel, which hit a collective raw nerve.

They posted online the image of the bird flat on its back, wings stuck in thick oil, feet kicking, futilely trying to free itself. People wept at their computers and sent each other messages. Did you see that photo of the bird? He looked like he was covered in chocolate, didn't he?

Even those who don't care much for animals took notice. These were the same people who get annoyed by pigeon droppings and creatures trying to coexist with people in cities and suburbs -- bothered by deer in the garden and raccoons moving around the attic like little men on their knees.

The suffering of other animals was haunting, too -- trapped turtles, crabs drowning in crude, dead dolphins. But the birds have been so visibly numerous, sitting immobile in oily marshes trying to clean themselves, sitting on eggs covered in oil, diving for fish in a sea coated in orange crude -- acting as if everything in the gulf is as it was before the spill began. We watch them try to keep going, just as we do, to live as if everything is normal. Only we know it's not.

Risking panic

The oiled bird Seymour is scouting spreads its wings. Seymour can see that it is still able to fly. That poses another dilemma: Do they try to chase it, which could stress it and disturb the colony of nesting birds?

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