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Delisted and in danger: Gulf oil spill threatens brown pelicans months after they are dropped from endangered species list

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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treated brown pelican released back into the wildImages of oil-caked brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) have hit the front pages of countless U.S. newspapers and other media in the past week, driving home the still-growing impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. So far, dozens of pelicans have been transported to rescue centers for treatment. The number is only expected to rise as the oil spill spreads and covers Louisiana’s Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery and other important breeding sites.

It is quite a blow for a species that was on the endangered species list until just six months ago. It had taken brown pelicans nearly 50 years to recover from the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides that nearly wiped them out. In fact, the species was nonextant in Louisiana and had to be reintroduced to the area from a colony in Florida. Queen Bess Island, one of the primary breeding sites responsible for the resurgence of the birds, had to be stabilized after oil companies nearly destroyed the local wetlands so they could lay pipes.

So far, almost all of the oil-covered pelicans that have been treated have survived, something that would not have been possible without human assistance, a veterinarian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told The New York Times.

Crude oil like that present in the Gulf is particularly dangerous to birds. It coats their feathers and hardens, making it impossible for them to fly or even move. It also interferes with their ability to regulate their internal temperatures, leaving them susceptible to overheating and dehydration. It can poison the fish they eat, and the oil’s toxins seep through the eggshells of pregnant birds, killing their embryos as well.

So far, the oil slick’s impact is just starting to harm pelicans, although hundreds of other birds have been found dead. That does not bode well for a species we have already spent half a century trying to save.

Photo: Treated brown pelican being released back into the wild. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen

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  1. 1. paladine 11:50 pm 06/8/2010

    Endangered Brown Pelicans Die for Lack Of Manpower

    I just watched Anderson Cooper. He went out in a boat with a Fish and Wildlife Rep to an estuary. He wasn’t allowed close, though…he was restricted from seeing the birds or the recovery. Kept at a safe distance, gov guy said it may stress the birds.


    Then AC interviewed the Wildlife Fish Service guy who admitted that sometimes they can’t get back for another night or two, they "miss some"…and birds die. He said it like that. Like no big deal. ( and Anderson Cooper is ‘stressful’ for birds?

    There was also a report at Mother Jones about a BP Mole who said BP’s plan is to have them wash out to sea. No evidence. (a MUST read, btw)

    That would be bad enough but I’ve been reading and hearing, from Jack Hanna, for one, that 22 Zoo’s and other animal specialists are on standby, waiting for a call!

    Someone needs to do a blog/piece/diary/SOMETHING. I think this deserves a great American blogger/writer/diarist. This is your land, your wildlife.

    Here in Canada, our oil companies are fined PER BIRD, less birds, less fine. Less birds, less clean up cost. Less bad pr.

    Someone needs to step up. Some action needs to be taken. I fear for how they suffer tonight…

    Link to this
  2. 2. Soccerdad 12:09 pm 06/9/2010

    The spill may threaten individual birds, but the Brown Pelican is not in short supply nor is it threatened with extinction. They inhabit the coastal area of most of North and South America. Louisiana contains maybe 1 or 2 percent of the total population. The biggest threat to this bird in Louisiana: hurricanes.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Sharon McEachern 4:52 pm 06/9/2010

    It’s not merely the brown pelicans, of course, but all wildlife — eventually throughout the world — effected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Our ecosystem is in dire trouble. Ethic Soup also has a good post on the pelicans and wildlife effected by the crude:

    Link to this
  4. 4. Soccerdad 10:12 pm 06/10/2010

    The spammers are obviously not endangered.

    Link to this

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