Friday, August 20, 2010

When numbers get serious

This was my For the Birds script for the program that aired August 4, 2010:

As of August 3, 2010, a total of 5154 oiled birds have been collected and reported on the official Deepwater Horizon Response Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report. Of these, 1699 were collected alive and 3455 were collected dead. So far, 594 of the treated birds have been released back into the wild, far away from the oiled areas where the birds were retrieved.

The data released each day in the Consolidated Report is accurate and extremely valuable. But it is not in any way a complete accounting of the numbers of birds affected by the spill. I find it troubling that because this is the only official number out there, the media and many organizations are using it as the definitive number of birds oiled. Defenders of Wildlife even cites the figure on their website as the “Total Impacted.” But this figure leaves out all the birds people are reporting to BP or the Fish and Wildlife Service that have not actually been collected. Many birds are seen and reported while still capable of flying away and so no attempt is made by officials to collect them—this includes the badly oiled night-heron and Great Egret that I saw on Cat Island in Barataria Bay, and the lightly oiled Great Egret I saw at Grand Isle State Park, all in Louisiana. Because of rules regarding disturbing nesting colonies, hundreds of badly oiled birds that were carefully documented and reported have not been collected.
It makes sense that BP and Fish and Wildlife are maintaining official, verifiable numbers of the birds collected in the spill. And keeping track of oiled birds that haven’t been collected would be a difficult task: someone might count and even photograph a large number of oiled birds on one island, and then on another island, with no way of knowing whether a few or a great many had island hopped and were counted twice. So it’s understandable that such an amorphous number isn’t part of the consolidated report. But it’s troubling that on BP’s website with the consolidated number, the text makes it sound like the total number of birds collected is greater than rather than less than the total number of birds oiled. The report emphasizes, “Some fish and wildlife reported here have likely died or been injured by natural causes, not due to the oil spill. Due to the increased number of trained people evaluating the spill impacted areas, it is also likely that we will recover more naturally injured or dead fish and wildlife than normal.”

Although this is true, the large numbers of badly oiled dead and dying birds seen and photographed on breeding colonies that were never officially collected may very well outnumber the entire total number of birds collected. Raccoon Island alone, which was very heavily oiled, is known to harbor 10,000 nesting birds—and eyewitnesses estimated the number showing signs of oil at 50 to 80 percent. Fish and Wildlife disputes this figure, but if they’ve sent any of their own biologists to do an accurate and verifiable count, that information has not been released. Meanwhile, a couple of members of Massachusetts Audubon and I did a flyover of Raccoon Island two full weeks after oil reached its shores. We were very high up, but some of the photos Shawn Carey took show pelicans lying flat on the ground with their wings spread—something they just don’t do when healthy. From so far above, we saw plenty of oil along the shore and washed into parts of the island interior, and could see that the badly oiled booms that had washed ashore had still not been removed and replaced with boom that could protect the island from additional oiling.

All this is to say that although the official number of oiled birds is a useful index, it’s far from the total number of birds oiled in this disaster.

A more accurate figure would be difficult or even impossible for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or anyone else, to produce. But it’s still important to recognize that the official figures being given out for oiled birds are far smaller than the actual numbers of birds that have so far been harmed by this disaster.