When officials pull scores of seabirds from the massive Gulf Coast oil slick, the local Center for Birds of Prey will become the East Coast hospital for the injured animals.
Jim Elliott, the Center's executive director, said U.S. Coast Guard officials contacted him in the past few days with a message to stand by. That means the Awendaw facility could send personnel to Louisiana or receive as many as 300 birds at its permanent location designed for that specific purpose. "It hasn't been but a few birds at this point," Elliott said. "But that's not likely to be the case, unfortunately, over time."
Two years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources provided a $1.8 million grant for an oiled bird facility at the center, according to Elliott. He said the center, which has treated injured birds since 1991, is the only oiled-bird hospital on the East Coast.
The center includes places where staff can wash and dry the birds by hand, plus it offers intake and isolation rooms and an evidence-collection area. Elliott said petroleum products leave a fingerprint and that staff must take samples from each oil-soaked bird so authorities can link the injury to the spill.
Elliott said this incident -- one of the worst spills in decades -- would mark the center's first out-of-state project. "It's probably inevitable, given the scale of this thing," Elliott said.
The center normally gets a case or two at a time. In the most recent local spill, when chunks of tar washed ashore from Sullivan's Island to Edisto in late October, the center treated one pelican.
Elliott said the Gulf Coast involvement serves as a local warning. "It really is analogous to not having a hurricane plan," he said. "It wouldn't be unlikely for us to have some event, and this is the perfect example of what might be needed. We need to learn from it."