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Louisiana wildlife officials investigate bird deaths

Members of the U.S. Army National Guard's 711 Brigade Support Battalion erect Hesco barriers to potentially stop any oil from damaging Dauphin Island, Alabama Wednesday. Oil spill workers raced against time in the Gulf of Mexico, hoping to take advantage of another day of calm seas in their fight to contain a huge spreading oil slick before it hits the U.S. shoreline. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


In what could prove to be the first such deaths caused by the oil slicks bearing down on the American Gulf Coast, Louisiana wildlife officials are investigating the reported discovery of a pair of dead birds near a wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River.

On Wednesday afternoon, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries officers were called to the area around Breton Island, one of a string of islands that make up an archipelago 30 kilometres east of the Mississippi delta, after someone reported seeing what looked like oil-covered birds in the water. The report came the same day as the agency announced it was calling in help from out-of-state to treat birds affected by the spill.

Late Wednesday, an LDWF spokesman said they were still investigating. "We have received unconfirmed reports of two additional live and two dead oiled birds," Thomas Gresham wrote in an e-mail. Another official later cautioned the dead birds were "not confirmed oiled yet."

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Louisiana's wetlands and marshlands are home to a wide range of species of birds, which tend to nest on some of the outer islands that may be first hit by oil. Breton Island, for instance, is home to hundreds of pelicans and is the second-oldest wildlife refuge in the United States.

The discovery came as LDWF crews inspected another outer island that lies about 30 kilometres off the mainland in St. Bernard Parish, a municipality southeast of New Orleans. The island sits on the edge of the marsh, with another 30 kilometres of water separating it from oil slicks spotted among the Chandeleur Islands to the east, near where the dead birds were later reported.

Crews found the unnamed island filled with herons and other species, but free of oil.

"There's a good variety of birds here," said LDWF biologist Clarence Luquet, as his agency's boat nudged up against the muddy shore.

"This is the nurturing ground here, so we're trying to keep it [the oil]out, especially this time of year when the birds have eggs or young, and the fish larvae and shrimp larvae are early in their life cycle. It's when they're much more susceptible to smaller amounts of oil," Mr. Luquet said. "We're crossing our fingers and saying a few prayers, too, that they round it [the oil]up out there, and keep it from here."

To protect these areas, officials are trying to deploy as many inflatable barriers, or boom, as possible. On Wednesday, about 10,000 feet of boom was loaded onto fishing boats in St. Bernard, all destined for the outer islands. Some of it was absorbent, designed to collect oil that has already gathered around the Chandeleur Islands.

With booming efforts in full gear, Louisiana is moving now to prepare to deal with any wildlife affected by the slick. LDWF secretary Robert Barham announced Wednesday the state would temporarily allow out-of-state veterinarians to help with their treatment.

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Mr. Barham's office has received offers of help from veterinarians in three other states, including Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez ran ashore in 1989.

The LDWF spokesman, Mr. Gresham, expected more information to be released about the four new reported birds on Thursday morning. Coast Guard officials had no information about the find.

Until called to Breton Island, the state had thus far received only two oily birds, recovering in a sanctuary in Buras, La. The facility was bustling with volunteers and LDWF staff Wednesday evening.

Messages left with the volunteers weren't returned. In an earlier interview, International Bird Rescue and Research Center director Jay Holcomb said time is of the essence when treating oily birds."Typically, in a situation like this, it's hours to days," that they can survive with oil, he said, adding that the Valdez disaster was worse because birds immediately began landing in the slick. "The difference here, of course, is it [the oil]can come to shore."

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