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Where Are All Those Oil-Soaked Birds We Were Expecting?

One peculiar thing about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill so far: hardly any wildlife covered in oil. The lack of  oiled birds has mystified rescuers and exasperated the media. TV networks are clamoring for images, showing clip files and giving the impression that tons of animals are showing up hurt. That’s not so–at least not yet.

Mike Ziccardi, a vet and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network,  says on the OWCN blog that he got into a spat with “a fairly irate reporter from a major national news outlet” who demanded video access to the necropsy (animal autopsy) of some sea turtles. The network were desperate for dead turtle images even though the turtles didn’t show initial signs of oiling and, as Ziccardi pointed out, were in found in a time and place typical of stranded turtles. (The other big threat to turtles is shrimp boats, Wallace Nichols from Grupo Tortuguero points out.)

Keith Olbmermann started a broadcast this week in ominous tone about “as dead jellyfish begin to wash up on the Mississippi coast.” Dead jellyfish might be the one bright spot of the oil spill, given that the Gulf Dead Zone has caused a plague of jellyfish in the gulf.

A brown pelican is only second bird to be treated. Photo by IBRRC

Apparently California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger so expected oiled wildlife images that he dreamed some up. He just announced that he was withdrawing support for drilling off California’s shores: “I see on TV, the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil spill, oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem,” he said at a press conference.

Both Schwartzenegger’s descion and the lack of injured animals is fantastic, of course. Right now, nearly two weeks into what may be the worst oil spill in U.S. history, exactly two birds are in treatment. There’s a northern gannet and this brown pelican. They’re going to be media stars, these two.

Ziccardi is mystified by the lack of oiled animals. By this time in an oil spill, he says, “wildlife field operations are in full swing, the largest number of animals are being (or have been) collected, and facilities are bustling with activity.” He doesn’t know what to make of this lack of animal injury: “Normally I would be overjoyed at this lack of overt animal impact. No, overjoyed is a significant understatement … but is this lull what we should expect in the days to come, or is the Sword of Damocles really about to come crashing down?”

That’s a question all of us are asking. We’ve been told that the oil spill was on the verge of hitting the shore since last Friday morning. I’m thrilled it hasn’t fouled beaches, wetlands and wildlife, but how is it not? Where is the oil going?

Ziccardi wonders if the oil dispersant chemicals are keeping the oil from the surface–where it would do the most damage to birds and marine mammals–but leaving it in the water where it will do long-term, hidden damage. Especially to clam beds. He uses my favorite word of the oil spill: BIOMAGNIFY. That means basically get eaten by the bottom of the food chain, concentrate there, then work their way up the food chain.  Kind of like mercury.

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