How do you make sure that birds rescued from the oil spill don't wind up right back in oil?

Easy Answer: You Can't.

All the feel good stories about rescued pelicans got me wondering how scientists are planning to keep released birds from winding up right back in oily waters. Turns out, they can't make any guarantees. The oil spill is still spilling. The scope and range of the disaster are still unknown.

So how are they picking places to release birds? Is anywhere in the Gulf safe?

"That's the million dollar question,"says Jenny Powers, a wildlife vet working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to help relocate birds. Powers says officials are doing their best to locate habitats that have shelter, food and some amount of protection from hurricanes. Today they're transferring 30 brown pelicans to the west coast of Florida--an area that, according to current predictions, has a less than 20% chance of getting oiled. Why not take the birds further away? Powers says they want to keep the birds in familiar territory and minimize the risk of spreading disease.

The problem goes beyond the scope of the spill. Just because you give a pelican a new home (Powers describes the Florida site as the "Ritz" for pelicans) doesn't mean it will stay. Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists says pelicans do tend to return to the same general nesting areas.

So, what can officials do?

Track them--so they can at least try to figure out if their plans are working.

Bird rescuers are tagging birds with a silver federal tag and an orange tag specific to this oil spill. According to both Powers and Rebecca Dmytryk, from the International Bird Rescue Research Center, there haven't been any repeat birds at the rehab facilities. That doesn't mean that no birds have been oiled twice, only that none have been discovered.

Dmytryk says her organization has never had to deal with anything like this before. Usually, with a spill, there's a finite amount of oil; there's a clean-up plan and an end in sight. Not this time.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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