|oiled bird/ US Fish & Wildlife Service|
Pepper Trail may be the only full-time forensic ornithologist. He works for the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, Oregon. On November 3 he visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to talk about the sort of work he does.
Trail documents evidence of crimes against birds. That can include anything from smuggling endangered species to trade in feathered craft items. One of the most common kinds of evidence he gets – accounting for a quarter to a third of all his cases – is oiled birds.
These birds often come from oil pits and waste pits located at drilling sites, Trail said. Companies are supposed to make their waste pits inaccessible to birds, but in most cases the their attempts fall far short of the law. Some look like wetlands, with oily water spread over reedy areas, while others are well-defined rectangular ponds. Both attract birds.
Trail doesn’t visit drilling sites, so he can’t say exactly where the birds are coming from or whether the driller is fracking for gas or oil. It’s the job of field investigators to fish dead birds from the oily depths and send them in. Trail’s job is to clean the feathers – tail feathers are best, he says – and look for distinguishing characteristics. So he washes them with solvent, gives them a rinse and then dries them off with a hair-drier.
Waterfowl aren’t the only birds attracted to gas and oil waste pits. Trail has identified 172 species, including mocking bird, barn owl, lark buntings and even roadrunners. “The mortality due to gas and oil pits is in the range of 500,000 to a million every year,” he said. To put that in perspective, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill killed 250,000 to 300,000 birds. Wind turbines account for about 100,000 bird deaths each year.
“This is some of the most important work we do,” said Trail. “Not because the fines are high, but because we can compel the companies to clean up their pits.”
|flags don't adequately protect birds from waste pits|
The current strategy of surrounding the pit with chain-link fence or stringing used-car-lot flags across the surface is totally inadequate. “The best way to protect birds is to pump out the pits and inject the fluids into storage tanks that are closed,” said Trail, adding that an alternative would be injecting waste into a geological formation – “if that’s safe.” Securely netting the pond could work, but too often the netting sags into the oil.