Special Reports

Oil-crippled pelicans rehabbed, freed in Texas

AUSTWELL, Texas — More than three dozen brown pelicans were cleared for takeoff Sunday when they were released along the Texas Gulf Coast after rehabilitation from a soaking in oil from the BP spill.

Federal wildlife crews have released 38 brown pelicans and one Forster’s tern at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast after the U.S. Coast Guard flew them in from rehab in Louisiana.

The birds were soaked with oil from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began in April when they were rescued. They were cleaned, treated for ingested oil and had their waterproofing restored.

“The oil breaks their waterproofing down, so they try and clean it off on their own,” said Dr. Dan Mulcahy, a wildlife veterinarian for the U.S. Geological Survey, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. “They ingest it and then it does real damage to their organs. They basically waste away.”

Cages containing two birds each arrived at Aransas County Airport in Rockport aboard a Coast Guard cargo plane Sunday morning. They were loaded into vehicles and taken to the nearby Aransas refuge, where the cages were opened and the birds flew away to the cheers of a small crowd that had gathered for the occasion, the Caller-Times reported.

Each bird was tagged and will be tracked to see if they remain in the Texas Coastal Bend or return to Louisiana. Aransas refuge staff members said the birds should find their new surroundings congenial.

“This habitat couldn’t be better for them,” said Aransas project manager Dan Alonso. “they’ve got ample room, food and a lot of other pelicans to interact with.”

The refuge also has plenty of the small fish and invertebrates the pelicans typically feed upon, Alonso said.

As the birds were released from an Aransas bayshore Sunday, they flew to the middle of the bay and settled into a floating group. It was the biggest release of birds rehabbed from the spill so far, and the first in Texas.

Brown pelicans are plentiful in the 115,000-acre refuge, and could become even more so. Wildlife officials say more than 200 cleaned and rehabilitated birds so far remain to be released at coastal Texas refuges.

“It’s a real treat to watch these birds,” Mulcahy said as the birds gathered on the bay. “This is a good day for them.”