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Gulf oil spill: Oil smears hundreds more pelicans, terns in nesting area, researchers say

July 15, 2010 | 10:44 am

NEW ORLEANS — Biologists say oil has smeared at least 300 to 400 pelicans and hundreds of terns in the largest seabird nesting area along the Louisiana coast — marking a sharp escalation in wildlife harmed by BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology said Wednesday that they had spotted the oiled pelicans on Raccoon Island over the last several days. The spit of land lines the Gulf outside the state's coastal marshes. An estimated 10,000 birds nest on the island in Terrebonne Parish.

Biologist Marc Dantzker with Cornell — considered one of the nation's premier institutions for bird research — said about 30 to 40 of the pelicans spotted by his group were oiled “head to tail.” Many more had visible blotches of oil.

Dead birds also were seen, although no count was available for those.

“This is a major oiling event of an incredibly important seabird colony,” Dantzker said. “Many of these birds will be dead soon — weeks and months. These blotches are deadly.”

Even a small amount of oil can kill birds because it hampers their ability to regulate their body temperature.

The finding underscores that official tallies of birds affected by the spill could be significantly underestimating the scope of damage.

The government counts only oiled birds collected for rehabilitation or found dead for use as evidence in the spill investigation. Oiled birds in the many nesting areas that dot the Gulf Coast typically are left in place and not counted in official tallies.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Lisa Williams said state and federal observers had documented only 68 oiled pelicans on Raccoon Island.

Across the gulf, roughly 3,000 killed or oil-covered birds have been collected by wildlife agencies since BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank on April 20, killing 11 workers.

Williams declined to say how many more birds that were not collected might have oil on them. She said those figures were being compiled, but the results would not be available for some time.

-- Associated Press

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