Seabird rescues revive debate over whether oiling victims should be cleaned
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2010:
GRAND ISLE–The disaster for pelicans predicted ever since
the Deepwater Horizon burned and began leaking oil on April 20, 2010
hit in full force when large amounts of oil at last reached the
coastal islands of Louisiana six weeks later.
Queen Bess Island, near Grand Isle, “is the worst-hit area
in the state in terms of wildlife,” state biologist Michael Carloss
told Allen Johnson of Agence France-Presse on June 5.
The Queen Bess Island pelican rookery is home to
thousands of birds, many of them oiled, but too lightly to permit
safe capture, Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries
ornithologist Michael Seymour told Mira Oberman of Agence
“The only way to catch a bird in that condition is to chase
the bird repeatedly until the birds gets tired,” Seymour said.
“We’re just going to be putting him under more stress than we need
Seymour has “seen eggs crushed by well-meaning amateurs
who trampled through a pelican colony to capture a single oiled bird.
Even stepping onto a rocky shore can send hundreds of panicked
nesting birds into the skies, exposing their fledglings and eggs to
the sweltering sun. Taking an oiled chick away from its parents
means it may never learn the skills it needs to survive on its own.
And capturing a lightly oiled bird still able to fly and feed itself
could mean leaving chicks or eggs untended,” Oberman summarized.
Despite the difficulties, more than 400 oiled pelicans were
recovered in the eight days from June 5 to June 14–a greater total
just in the first two days than in the preceding six weeks. Among
them were the first oiled pelican found in Mississippi. The rescues
revived debate about whether rescuing oiled birds is cost-effective,
has conservation value, and can be justified from a humane
“Cleaning a single pelican can require 300 gallons of water,”
reported Associated Press writers John Flesher and Noaki Schwartz.
“Scientists with the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research
Center in California said it costs them $600 to $750 to clean a bird.
Fewer than 10% of brown pelicans who were cleaned and marked for
tracing after a 1990 spill in Southern California were accounted for
two years later,” Flesher and Schwartz continued, “while more than
half the pelicans in a control group could be found, three
scientists with the University of California at Davis, reported in
1996. The formerly oiled birds also showed no signs of breeding.”
“Silvia Gaus, an animal biologist at the Wattenmeer
National Park in northern Germany, claims it would be kinder to let
the birds perish peacefully or euthanize them humanely,” wrote online
birding columnist Melissa Mayntz. “Limited studies have shown that
oiled birds have a survival rate of less than 1%, and after release
many die within a week,” she said.
Said the U.S. Minerals Management Service in a 2002
environmental analysis of Gulf oil drilling projects, “Studies
indicate that rescuing and cleaning oiled birds makes no effective
contribution to conservation, except conceivably for species with a
small world population.”
But also in 2002 a study by Humboldt State University
scientists found that gulls who were treated after a California spill
had approximately the same survival rate as gulls who escaped oiling.
Said lead study author Dan Anderson, a professor emeritus of
conservation biology at the University of California, at Davis, “If
nothing else, we’re morally obligated to save birds who seem to be
The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of
Coastal Birds has handled more than 50,000 oiled seabirds since 1968,
with exceptionally good success in treating penguins.
“Some species might tolerate it better than others, but when
you compare the benefits to the costs, I am skeptical,” offered Ron
Kendall, director of the Institute of Environ- mental and Human
Health at Texas Tech University.
“Oil may be doing a species considerable harm, but
rehabilitation won’t change that,” said University of California at
Santa Cruz ecologist Jim Estes. “It will just help a relatively
small number of individuals.”
Responded Jay Holcomb, executive director of the
International Bird Rescue Research Center, “What do you want us to
do? Let them die?” Helping to rescue oiled birds since 1970,
Holcomb described to reporters changes in methods over the years that
have markedly increased survival rates. The most important may be
rehydating and feeding rescued birds, and giving them time to rest,
before beginning the stressful oil removal process.
Veterinarian Robert MacLean, of the Audubon Nature
Institute in New Orleans, acknowledged to Flesher and Schwartz of
Associated Press that there is almost no data from which to determine
the success rates of cleaning and releasing non-avian species.
MacLean had helped to rescue and clean three Kemp’s ridley sea