July 1, 2010 -- For months, a small army of specialists has been working feverishly to save the birds of the Gulf of Mexico. The job is about to get a lot harder.
More than a billion birds will be in danger in the coming weeks as they continue their normal migratory patterns, flying towards the Gulf of Mexico and the growing oil spill. They're migrating to the Gulf to mate and nest, unaware that their habitat has been contaminated by the BP accident.
Beau Harghatre coordinates the response for migratory birds in the Gulf, a sort of ambulance dispatcher for birds. He said the Gulf coast is North America's biggest hub for the birds that will pass through here over the next six months.
"Over the next few months, millions of birds will make their way through the Gulf coast flyway; [they] will all converge here, [they] could be impacted by the spill," said Harghatre.
Dodging a Bullet
Some of the 300 species of birds migrating south will stop in the region to roost for the winter. Others will make brief stops and then continue flying. All of the birds run the risk of eating oil-fouled wildlife and nesting on oil-soaked shores.
Up until now, wildlife experts said that the toll of the oil spill on sea birds was less than expected. Despite those images of oil soaked pelicans, sea birds largely dodged a bullet earlier this spring when the toxic crude first started gushing from that broken well head in April. It took longer for the oil to reach shore than experts had predicting, protecting the birds.
"A lot of those birds were safe on their spring passage, but they won't be safe on their fall passage," said Greg Butcher, bird conservation director for the National Audubon Society.
Flooding the Fields
To protect the birds from the encroaching oil, teams are hard at work to play an elaborate trick on them. Federal officials are paying farmers to flood fields in five states, hoping to fool the birds into landing in clean water. If that doesn't work, they are hoping that booms will keep oil out of Gulf marshes.
The wildlife officials use precise coordinates to locate oiled birds, but by the time officials get to those coordinates, the birds might be gone. Those that are rescued are taken to four rescue centers. While large birds are stronger, some animals, like ducks, might not survive the tortuous scrubbing.
"Right now, we're concerned with mottled ducks," said Harghatre. "At this particular time of year, a lot of them are flightless so they are more prone to being impacted."
This month alone, tens of millions of ducks, herons and sandpipers are expected to flock to the Gulf.
Rehabilitation centers in the Gulf have already treated over 800 birds struck by oil and released at least 250 back into the wild. To date, more than 2000 dead and debilitated birds have been counted along the entire Gulf coast.
The Associated Press Contributed To This Report.