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One giant leap for oiled birds

Rehabilitated birds from Louisiana's oil-spill zone are being airlifted to a new home that's famous for flight: NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Six brown pelicans, four laughing gulls and one common tern were flown from a bird-rescue center at Fort Jackson in Louisiana to Florida over the weekend. The birds were released on Sunday at the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is co-located with the space center. "They looked pretty normal," the refuge's supervisory park ranger, Dorn Whitmore, told me today. "They acted happy to be free again. If pelicans could look happy, that's how they'd look."

Bird-rescue crews were gearing up for another Louisiana-to-Florida transfer on Thursday, but Sharon Taylor, a veterinarian with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Louisiana, said the trip had to be postponed. "There was a problem with a last-minute health check," she told me. After the birds are cleaned up, they need a few days of drying and preening to make their feathers waterproof again, Taylor explained. During this evening's final check, she and her colleagues determined that the feathers weren't quite right yet. So it'll be another couple of days before the next airlift can take place.

Why go through all this trouble? The folks in charge of the bird cleanup don't want to release birds back into the oil-contaminated environment that forced the fouled fowl into rehab in the first place. Marsh birds such as egrets and herons are brought to inland marshland in Louisiana, such as the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area. But aerial searching birds, such as pelicans and gulls, like to dive right into the water to find their food. For them, the waters off Louisiana's shores are not a good option.

The lagoons on the space center grounds were judged the best place to relocate such species. "It's pretty safe in the immediate vicinity of where they're being released," Whitmore said. "Of course, we don't know what the birds are going to do after we release them."

During the earlier phase of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, some of the cleaned-up birds were brought to Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's Gulf Coast, but as the plume of oil spread, experts switched the relocation effort to Merritt Island. "As best as we can tell, it's out of the main trajectory," Taylor said.

America's main rocketport may seem like an odd place to put a wildlife refuge, but it's been that way since 1963. Today, Kennedy Space Center provides a home for more than 500 species of wildlife, including endangered sea turtles, manatees, bald eagles and alligators.

Whitmore said the rehabilitated birds will be flown aboard a Coast Guard airplane into the space center's shuttle landing facility. From there, the emigres will be bused to release areas outside NASA's restricted zone. Each bird bears a leg band to facilitate future tracking, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a more sophisticated monitoring effort that will involve fitting rehabilitated birds with radio transmitters.

As of today, 442 oiled birds have been collected alive from four states affected by the oil spill (Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi). Rescuers have gathered up 633 dead birds. Only 40 birds have been released so far. But you won't find Whitmore or Taylor suggesting that the birds aren't worth trying to save.

"Everything we've released so far, they've looked really good when we've released them," Taylor said.

Whitmore said Merritt Island offers plenty of habitat for the new birds on the block. "We don't feel that overpopulation will have any impact at all," he said. The pelicans in particular should feel right at home.

"They seem to get along pretty well," Whitmore said. "There are hundreds and hundreds on these islands where they roost every night. They're what we call a colonial nesting bird. They seem to be gregarious. ... I don't think it's an issue that these new birds have a Louisiana accent."

More about the oil spill and wildlife:


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