Interview with Melanie Driscoll

Melanie Driscoll

Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative

You’ve been involved in the spill since day one. What are you feeling today, so many weeks after the oil started leaking?

This has been an incredibly emotional and difficult time for everyone who’s been working on the spill. We’re dealing with exhaustion, as well as the sadness of seeing wildlife and ecosystems and people’s livelihoods in jeopardy. Today, I actually feel better personally because for the first time in a long time, I got a good night’s sleep and feel rested. For so many of us, the spill has meant a lot of time away from home, family, exercise, and everything that keeps us healthy.

back to top

As a scientist, can you explain why science matters in disasters like this?

Science allows us to make better decisions when emotions might cause us to take more risks or cause more harm. Science can help guide us toward what’s best for populations and systems—not just individuals. In some cases, the immediate and gut-level response might cause more loss or harm to a species, populations, or habitat. For example, we are using science to understand which bird populations are most at risk and to prioritize how to best protect the places that are most critical for their survival. We need to think about what they eat, where they eat, where they nest, how the wind and water moves, and how the birds’ behaviors will be impacted by the oil.

back to top

Everyone keeps hearing about tar balls. Do tar balls hurt birds? What should people do if they see tar balls on the beach?

Tar balls can hurt birds and other wildlife. They are usually not as full of toxins as some of the pure oil is. But tar isn’t great. It’s sticky and thick. And it can harm birds by sticking to their feathers and feet, so they can’t move around easily and so they lose the protective qualities of their feathers.

It’s also important that people try to avoid oil and tar balls whenever they can – you absolutely should not touch it if you can help it. Instead, if you see oil, you should call the Deep Horizon hotline at (866) 448-5816. Trained experts with the right gear are the ones who need to deal with cleaning up the oil directly.

back to top

What are the major threats of the oil spill to coastal habitats?

There are two major threats to coastal habitat. The first is the oil itself. It washes into the coastal habitat and can coat and potentially kill marsh grass, mangroves, and other vegetation. It’s hard to tell how much harm it will do it the long run. It depends on how thick the oil is and if it gets into the soil and roots of plants.

The other threat is that clean-up efforts can be harsh—people and vehicles can trample vegetation, and this can be a problem, especially in fragile marshlands. We are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other government agencies to make sure that our clean-up efforts do more good than harm. We don’t know for sure what the long-term impacts will be, and I would guess that it will vary along the coast.

back to top

What about the threats to the deep water?

The deep water issues are trickier because we can’t visually see the impact of the spill. Oil is toxic to people and wildlife. It contains toxic compounds that can harm the tiny things in the Gulf, like plankton and algae, as well as bigger ocean swimmers, like fish, turtles, and other marine life.

The good news is that oil can be remediated by nature. That means that micro-organisms in the water can eat the oil and eventually clean it out over time. But if too much oil enters the water at once, it overwhelms systems. If too many of these oil-eating microbes eat and reproduce, they use up oxygen in the water, which can end up killing fish and other animals.

The chemicals used to disperse oil in the water are also toxic, and scientists are still trying to learn what the effects of the dispersants will be on the plants and wildlife in the water.

back to top

How are we studying the impacts of this oil spill?

Thousands of people are working on the spill itself, trying to keep the oil from getting on the beaches and cleaning it up when it hits. And just as many people are studying the impacts along the coast and in the deep water. Scientists working in universities, government agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations like Audubon are collecting data and learning more about the spill and what it means to the entire ecosystem. We’re all working to monitor specific issues related to the spill and to study what happens to wildlife and habitat. This will be an on-going effort to really understand how oil spills like this damage systems over time. It will also be vital in making sure that our efforts to restore habitats are successful.

back to top

How will the oil impact migrating birds? How does the timing impact birds and their breeding cycles?

Many of us are concerned about shorebirds that will be migrating back through this area starting in early July. Some will be coming from as far north as the Arctic and heading south to Argentina, where they will stay during winter. As they head south, they will need a lot of food and safe places to rest. And we don’t want them to get stuck in oily slicks or habitat.

With some species, it will be hard to guide them to safe habitat. For example, pelicans need to be on barrier islands to breed. Trying to move them wouldn’t work. However, ducks are more mobile and we can help provide them with healthy habitat as they make their way south.

And with some birds, we are hoping to work with farmers and others to create good habitat away from the coast and the oil. For example, we will work with farmers to flood their harvested rice fields, and birds like long-billed Dowitchers will stop to feed and rest. They will not only eat the rice, but the insects and other creatures that live there, too. This is called short-stopping. We’re tricking the birds to stop before they get to all the oil and gunk along the coast.

back to top

What are the best ways to help?

If you live near the coast, you can volunteer to help through Audubon’s volunteer center and help count and monitor bird populations and help to restore habitat. There are also many other ways to help, including restoring habitat no matter where you live—but especially if you live along a major bird migration flyway. It’s also important that all of us look at our own energy use. This oil spill really shows the connection between our use of fossil fuels and the damage it can do to a habitat. You can check Audubon’s Oil Spill Action Kit fore more ideas.

back to top

If you see an oiled bird, what should you do?

Call the hotline at (866) 448-5816. They’ll ask you what kind of bird it is (if you know) and where it’s located. And then they will call a team of rescuers to come and help. Every sighting gets checked out by federal or state rescue teams.

It’s important that people leave the actual rescue and clean-up of oiled birds to the experts. These experts are trained wildlife biologists who understand bird biology, along with vets and wildlife rehabilitators. They also are trained in working with hazardous materials. You should not try to touch an oiled bird.

back to top

What has been the most emotional part of being involved in the disaster response since the start?

When I go out in boats and see oiled birds and know that I can’t help them, it’s heart-breaking. If I see one baby bird covered in oil and it’s near a whole group of un-oiled birds, I know that I would do more damage than good by saving that one bird. The other birds would scatter and many of them would get coated with oil. We have to very careful about how we help. It’s just very sad.

back to top

What are you most hopeful about?

I’m most hopeful about how much people care—about birds, other wildlife, and the people whose lives have been turned upside down. I’m also hopeful that young people have been energized to do something to help. I’m so amazed at what young people are doing—from raising money to cleaning up habitat in their own communities and reducing energy use.

I’m also hopeful when I hear that our beaches in Texas have recorded more nesting brown pelicans than ever before. We have many beach stewards out there every week helping to monitor these very special birds and the other wildlife that lives on our Texas and Florida beaches. So that’s good news because it helps make up for the oil impacts off the coast of Louisiana. And citizens are truly making a difference!

back to top

Anything you’d like to add?

I encourage everyone reading this—especially kids—to learn more about birds, wildlife, and habitat. It’s so healthy for people to get outside and connect with nature in general. And when a crisis like this hits, it really helps that people can identify the wildlife that are injured and help with monitoring birds and other wildlife and stewarding the environment. The bottom line is that every single person can make a difference.

back to top