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The Pelican Grief

At Goose Island, near Rockport, some of the nearly 200 pelicans rescued from the Gulf oil spill and sent to Texas seem to be thriving. But officials are holding their breath to see whether the rescued birds stick around or fly back to habitats that may still be contaminated. "Wildlife do crazy things," says the manager of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. "That's why they're called 'wild.'" But the ones that stay could face survival struggles, too, from coastal litter and competition with other species for food.

Twenty brown pelicans now call Texas home after getting "oiled" in the BP spill off Louisiana's coast

Four pelicans sit atop a light pole at the sleepy Goose Island State Park campground, scanning the water for the silvery flicker of fish jumping from St. Charles Bay. One bird spots a catch, dive-bombing into the water. The others go back to preening.

Nearby, park spokesman Mike Mullenweg sits in his idling pickup truck, scanning the pelicans for red and silver leg bands that would mean they came from Louisiana, rescued from the Gulf oil spill. The pelicans ignore his booming voice, the chug of the engine and the dredge out in the water.

Such is the low-key reception Texas has given to nearly 200 rehabilitated birds, mostly pelicans, since the spill. Veterinarians and volunteers cleaned the birds, which then got a lift from the Coast Guard to the Texas shore. These are the survivors. Deepwater Horizon Unified Command every day produces a report of how many animals responders find and whether they are clean, "visibly oiled” or dead. So far, responders have collected more than 1,400 birds alive in Louisiana alone. Another 2,100 have turned up dead.

As of Sunday, nearly 700 birds have been rescued and released. Neither disaster responders in Louisiana nor park officials in Texas are sure just how much the pelicans' rescue and release has cost. But they say they are tracking the expenses, and they expect BP to foot the bill eventually.

Here at Goose Island, near Rockport, the birds seem to be thriving. They enjoy plenty of fish and the company of thousands of other pelicans, Mullenweg says. But officials are holding their breath to see whether the rescued birds stick around — no sure thing, say veterinarians and biologists involved in the pelicans' release. The birds may fly back to Louisiana, where they could again face dangers in contaminated habitats. And the ones that stay could face survival struggles, too, from coastal litter and food competition with other species. The birds have fought and won against greater threats than the oil spill — pesticides landed brown pelicans on the endangered species list but were de-listed just nine months ago.  

Rescue mission

As his truck putts along Goose Island, Mullenweg sweats through his khaki uniform and points out birds. His job title is “park interpreter,” which has nothing to do with language. A budding butterfly photographer in his spare time, Mullenweg says the job often involves taking second graders fishing or bird-watching to drive home a lesson plan about conservation on the island.

On this day he looks for banded pelicans, the ones oiled in the wake of BP's spill and whose photos stoked public emotion early on in the disaster. The live ones come in looking "like a little ball of tar that you can sort of recognize is a bird," says Luis Padilla, a veterinarian from the Smithsonian Institution serving a stint at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in response to the oil spill. He helped coordinate the release of 20 brown pelicans at Goose Island and another 174 pelicans and other birds at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Before arriving in Texas, the birds made their first stop at a rehab center in Houma, La., where they got a serious scrub-down with dish soap, Padilla says. Veterinarians rehydrated them, monitored their temperatures and took blood. "Vets can then say, 'Okay, this bird is good,'" Padilla says. "Then, we need to find a place where it can go."

In Texas, Parks & Wildlife biologist Andy Tirpak was ready for that question. But first he needed to know: Would the birds be disease-free? Would any exotic species be among them? Would they crowd out other wildlife here in Texas?

That wildlife includes white pelicans, which migrate in the winter to Goose Island. There, they join brown pelicans, like the ones rescued from the spill. Food competition intensifies during these months.

Brown pelicans now nest and fish all along the Gulf Coast. That’s a vast improvement from decades ago, when brown pelican numbers dwindled Gulf-wide because the pesticide DDT weakened their egg shells. They disappeared from Louisiana altogether, Padilla says.

In the summer, Texas would be able to sustain the oil-spill refugees, Tirpak determined. In mid-June, he got a response from the rehabilitation center in Louisiana: Pelicans would soon be ready for the trip. On July 28, response staff in Houma took 20 pelicans in dog crates big enough to fit Great Danes to New Orleans, where they met a Coast Guard cargo aircraft. Three and a half hours later, the plane touched down, with birds aboard, at the regional airport in Rockport.

Tirpak was on hand as trucks delivered the pelicans from the airport to the tip of Goose Island. Rain threatening, helpers lifted off the tops of the crates. Some pelicans flew out; others walked. They cleaned and preened, tentative at first. Then, in twos and threes, they took off into the bay: Texas' newest transplants.

"That's why they're called 'wild'"

Officials at both Goose Island and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge say they believe the released pelicans are doing well. No birds have turned up sick or injured so far. In fact, none have turned up at all. But their futures are far from certain.

They could return to Louisiana, perhaps before their former habitats have recovered from the damage wreaked by oil. No one really knows, though. Padilla, the veterinarian, says it's possible. Tirpak says it's probable. Dan Alonso, the manager of Aransas, doesn't expect it. But, he says, "wildlife do crazy things. That's why they're called 'wild.'"

The oil muck in Louisiana isn't the only potential hazard for the birds. Litter can prove dangerous on the Texas coast, Mullenweg says, especially fishing line. Birds tangle with it, sometimes getting grounded and malnourished. Some end up in the University of Texas at Austin's Animal Rehabilitation Keep in Port Aransas, or the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, which runs a small hospital exclusively for birds.

On Goose Island, Mullenweg tries to combat the risk by keeping a bin at the end of the pier for people to dispose of used fishing line. As he unscrewed the bottom of the bin, out clattered aluminum cans, followed by other trash and bunches of colored line. The park sends the line away to be melted down and reused.

Mullenweg and the others know from experience that the pelicans' health and habitat are fragile. The birds joined the endangered species list in 1970, two years before DDT was banned, and were only removed in November. Mullenweg compared seeing a brown pelican in the 1970s to seeing an endangered whooping crane today. "You can see them — but it's a big deal," he says. "Here's this great wildlife recovery story," Padilla adds. "Now it's gotten hit with the oil."

The park does not expect any more rescued birds for now, but stands ready. In Louisiana, bird numbers in the Deepwater report spiked this week. On Sunday, 15 live birds — and 78 dead ones — came ashore.

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