What does an oiled pelican look like?
You’ve probably seen the disturbing images of pelicans so badly mired in leaking oil in the Gulf of Mexico that they can barely be distinguished as birds at all — they look like part of the muck.
But nearly three months after the blowout at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, there are other pelicans touched by the oil where the impact is far less apparent, though still real.
Take a look at some video I took during a boat trip on July 15 along West Pass, a long channel stretching out into the ocean from Louisiana’s southern-most tip:
The video was taken aboard a small, bobbing boat with a light wind distorting sound, but it clearly shows a section of a rocky jetty stretching into the Gulf. There were hundreds of pelicans and gulls perched on the jetty; the video only shows a short section.
What’s important to look for are the dark patches on the heads, beaks and wings of some of the pelicans; that is untreated black oil, according to Joao Talocchi of the environmental group Greenpeace. There was no black oil in the water nearby, or the reddish sludge of treated oil seen in the photo of the drenched pelican above, only a few isolated pea-sized beads of emulsified oil that appeared to have been treated with dispersant chemicals.
There’s no way to know how these birds came in contact with oil, but somehow it happened. And if they ingest the oil during preening, it could be toxic to them, Talocchi said.
“What happens when you look at those pelicans is that they’re not drowning and you say they’re OK,” he said after the half-day voyage, which left from Venice, Louisiana. “But they’re not, because oil is toxic. They lose the capacity of protecting themselves and making themselves waterproof … they lose heat and they can go hypothermic, can suffer hypothermia.”
He said pelicans and other water birds could be damaged by eating fish that have eaten material contaminated with oil. Though the pelicans and gulls on the jetty in the video can fly and from a distance appear health enough, Talocchi said they could be at risk from direct or indirect exposure to leaking oil.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Sean Gardner (oil-covered brown pelican sits in a pool of oil along Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery, northeast of Grand Isle, Louisiana, June 5, 2010)