Bird rescue personnel Danene Birtell (L) and Heather Nevill (R) hold an oiled brown pelican, found on Storm Island in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, that will be washed at the treatment facility at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, USA. BP has contracted bird rescue groups to rehabilitate wildlife affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The birds are examined, thoroughly washed and then allowed to recover.
Image: Paul Buck/EPA.
British Petroleum’s current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is unfortunately one of many oil spill events that occur every year due to rampant corporate greed and systemic corner-cutting. These events result in the slow agonized deaths of millions of animals, birds and fish in addition to damage and destruction to entire ecosystems. After dead and dying animals wash up on public beaches, the public becomes alarmed and rushes to their aid, setting up rescue stations to clean and rehabilitate oiled birds and marine mammals. At least a few experts have openly advocated killing all oiled wildlife immediately, claiming that animal lovers are merely prolonging their distress and suffering.
“Kill, don’t clean,” recommends Silvia Gaus, a biologist at NationalPark Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea National Park) in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Unfortunately, despite some short-term success in cleaning birds and releasing them into the wild, few, if any, have a chance of surviving even for a few months, reports Ms Gaus, who has worked as a biologist for 20 years.
“According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent,” Ms Gaus explained. “We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds.”
Um, hello? “Serious studies”?
Despite her blunt comments, Ms Gaus does have some experience with oil spills: she was reportedly part of the environmental cleanup team after a ship, the Pallas, grounded itself in October 1998, spilling 90 tons of crude into into the icy North Sea wintering area for Common Eiders, Somateria mollissima. That disaster led to the deaths of more than 13,000 birds due to drowning, freezing or stress.
When oiled, seabirds are vulnerable to drowning because their feathers’ waterproofing qualities are destroyed and their downy feathers’ insulative properties are lost, leading to either hypothermia or sometimes, as is the case for many Gulf birds, hyperthermia. Oiled birds lose body weight rapidly as their metabolism increases to compensate for their falling body temperature. Sticky, oiled feathers are heavy and cannot trap air between them to keep the birds buoyant, so they cannot fly and often sink into a watery grave below the waves. Thus, birds are very particular about their plumage, and use their bills and tongues to remove debris, including oil, despite its terrible taste and smell. They sometimes ingest the oil, which causes health problems, such as ulcers and damage to internal organs that detoxify the blood.
“Their instinct to clean [their feathers] is greater than their instinct to hunt, and as long as their feathers are dirty with oil, they won’t eat,” Ms Gaus pointed out. (Actually, it is much more likely that the birds’ “instinct” to clean their feathers is simply a response to the gravity of their situation: they are not physically capable of doing anything else until their feathers are clean.)
But even lightly-oiled birds that manage to remove the oil from their feathers and restore their waterproofing qualities can suffer liver and kidney damage that leads to their premature deaths. This is because these organs remove toxins from the blood — toxins such as those contained in oil. It is thought that low boiling point aromatic and saturated hydrocarbons contained in oil present the greatest danger to marine life and to the people who try to save them.
According to Ms Gaus, forcing oiled birds to swallow “coal” [activated charcoal] solutions (the same treatment used in hospital emergency rooms to remedy poisoning in humans) or Pepto Bismol (as animal-rescue workers are doing along the Gulf Coast) to prevent the poisonous effects of ingested oil is “ineffective.” On the contrary, I think emergency room personnel would strongly disagree with Ms Gaus’s assessment of one of their treatments, and one should also note that other rescue groups report “some success” for the Pepto Bismol treatment (i. e. DOI: 10.1016/S1055-937X(99)80032-2.)
Oil toxicity is not diminished by the use of chemical dispersants. Chemical dispersants are intended to protect birds and other animals by breaking up the oil slick and to keep it from making landfall. But they don’t neutralize contaminants nor their poisons and worse, these dispersants contain harmful toxins of their own that add to the poisonous effects of oil.
“There is a chemical toxicity to the dispersant compound that in many ways is worse than oil,” warned Richard Charter, an expert on marine biology and oil spills who is Senior Policy Advisor for Marine Programs at Defenders of Wildlife and chairman at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.
Even though the precise ingredients in these dispersants is a closely-guarded trade secret, a worker safety sheet for COREXIT®, the dispersant currently being applied to the Gulf oil spill, shows it contains 2-butoxyethanol, and a proprietary organic sulfonic acid salt with a small concentration of propylene glycol. According to the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the use of COREXIT® during the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused “respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders” in people — a concern for wildlife as well as for those working to save oiled wildlife. According to the EPA, COREXIT® is more toxic than dispersants made by several competitors and less effective in handling southern Louisiana crude. Apparently, the choice to use COREXIT® instead of other, less dangerous and more effective dispersants was primarily due to profit motives: COREXIT® is produced by Nalco Holding Company, which is associated with BP and Exxon.
In addition to increasing the overall toxin load, dispersants concentrate oil poisons in the water. These poisons migrate great distances, poisoning and killing plankton, fish eggs and crustaceans. When consumed by fish, birds, whales and humans, these toxins cause liver and kidney damage or carcinogenic effects.
“It’s a trade-off — you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t — of trying to minimize the damage coming to shore,” Dr Charter remarked. “But in so doing you may be more seriously damaging the ecosystem offshore.”
Even when oiled birds are recovered alive, they often are exhausted, malnourished, dehydrated and immunosuppressed. Some individuals may not survive the added stress of being captured, handled, transported, force-fed, washed, and rehabilitated — all of which involves close proximity to humans, experiences that presumably led Ms Gaus to her “euthanize immediately” declaration.
But Ms Gaus is not completely alone in her assessment: surprisingly, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) agree with Ms Gaus’s recommendation — but for heavily oiled birds.
“Birds, those that have been covered in oil and can still be caught, can no longer be helped,” stated a WWF spokesman during the 2002 Prestige clean-up effort. “Therefore, the World Wildlife Fund is very reluctant to recommend cleaning.”
The Prestige spill killed 250,000 birds off the western coasts of France, Spain and Portugal. Of the thousands of birds that were cleaned, most died within a few days, and only 600 were released into the wild. According to an oft-quoted (but unnamed, unreferenced and mysteriously unfindable) British study of the tragically mishandled Prestige spill, the median lifespan of those 600 released birds was only seven days.
A dead cormorant on the beach on Ship Island, Mississippi
as concern continues that the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
may harm animals in its path.
It is unknown if the bird died due to the oil spill.
Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP.
However, in contrast to those grim prognostications, “serious studies” show that many lightly-oiled birds do survive the cleaning process and are successfully released into the wild. Further, as our experience dealing with oiled wildlife (sadly) grows, increasing numbers of heavily-oiled birds (such as these) that are recovered alive are surviving their horrific ordeal.
One agency that specializes in dealing with oiled birds is the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). Since its formation in early 1971, the IBRRC has responded to more than 200 oil spills throughout the US and its territories, and in seven other countries, caring for more than 140 species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including threatened and endangered species. Their reported release rates range from 100% to 25%, averaging between 50% to 80%.
Unfortunately, Ms Gaus ignores IBRRC data documenting that bird survival rates differ with each oil spill due to the many variables involved, including the toxicity of the oil, the warmth of the water, how rapidly the birds are collected and stabilized, the bird’s condition prior to being oiled, and the species affected [IBRRC FAQ; also see DOI: 10.1016/0025-326X(82)90346-0 and DOI: 10.1016/S1055-937X(99)80032-2].
Instead of basing her opinions and comments on available data, Ms Gaus instead relies on worst-case-scenarios to dictate universal policies for dealing with oiled birds and wildlife. Not all oil spills have equally dismal release and survival rates: Tseng (1997) reports a release rate of 78% for King Eiders, Somateria spectabilis, and Leggett et al (1997) report a release rate of approximately 90% for Brown Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis.
Of course, released birds may die later, as the data from the mishandled Prestige oil spill indicate. But follow-up telemetry data for rehabilitated American Coots, Fulca americana, and Western Gulls, Larus spp., indicate that survival rates are much better than reported. In fact, another study of oiled gulls and an unoiled control group that were subjected to the same cleaning procedures prior to release showed identical survival (100%) for the 8 month life of the transmitters (as cited by Jessup & Mazet, 1999). Certainly, it is in our best interests (and those of wildlife) to understand why there are such wildly variable survival rates before forcing a blanket policy to “euthanize all oiled birds immediately.”
Ms Gaus also conveniently ignores the fact that at least some types of birds, such as penguins, pelicans and murres, are quite tolerant to prolonged, close proximity to humans. Additionally, she doesn’t even consider the fact that because some species are endangered (for example, Brown Pelicans, the state bird for Louisiana, comprise the majority of live, oiled birds turning up in rescue centers, were just removed from the endangered species list in November 2009), the loss of even a few individuals can have tremendous impacts upon the genetic diversity of their population. So it is critical to save as many oiled birds as possible, and to use the experiences from both our successes and failures to improve our techniques accordingly.
I disagree with Ms Gaus’s gloomy policy. Because all people use petroleum or petroleum-related products in some form, I maintain that it is both ethical and responsible to try to save as many oiled birds and other wildlife as we can. Some wildlife management professionals argue that cleaning oiled birds isn’t worth the monetary cost and effort since little or no impact can be made on a species level. But actually, we don’t know this to be true. Additionally, I ask you; what amount of money and effort is too much, and who should be making those decisions anyway? Further, what do we, as scientists and as a society, gain by trying to save these unfortunate animals? Certainly, I think it is imperative to develop our technology to the best level possible so we can use it to help all birds, whether their populations are doing fine or they are threatened or endangered, so we are capable of helping them in the sad event that they are impacted by an oil spill. This requires that we continually refine and improve our techniques and equipment to do the job properly.
Even if my arguments are unacceptable, what is the alternative? The public will be justifiably outraged if government wildlife agencies, as a matter of policy, do nothing except euthanize oiled birds when they come ashore or are captured at sea — particularly in view of ample published scientific data showing that oiled birds can be successfully rehabilitated. Additionally, many people do feel a deep concern to make their world better and will do something on their own — why not provide the necessary training and harness that energy and put it to good use? I also think there is tremendous value in showing people the true costs of our oil dependence, so hopefully, society will begin realize that some risks are simply too great to support our endless quest to satisfy this addiction.
Last but not least, I think that each life is intrinsically valuable and that each animal is deserving of care and protection. In a world where life is not always respected and valued, I think that saving the life of even one bird sends an important message.
Leggett R. 1997. How an oil company, Tri-State Bird Rescue, and a community saved 113 oiled brown pelicans. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the Effects of Oil on Wildlife. Fifth International Conference, November 3-6, 1997, Monterey, California USA, 5, 76-80.
Tseng, F.S. & Goodfriend, D. 1997. Case history of an oil spill response in the Pribilof Islands. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the Effects of Oil on Wildlife. Fifth International Conference, November 3-6, 1997, Monterey, California USA, 5, 68-72.
Tseng, F. 1999. Considerations in care for birds affected by oil spills. Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, 8 (1), 21-31 DOI: 10.1016/S1055-937X(99)80032-2.
Jessup, David A. & Jonna A. K. Mazet. 1999. Rehabilitation of Oiled Wildlife: Why Do It? 1999 International Oil Spill Conference.
Stowe, T. 1982. An oil spillage at a Guillemot colony. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 13 (7), 237-239 DOI: 10.1016/0025-326X(82)90346-0.
How to Help [added 6 June 2010]:
You can donate money or items to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary and Avian Hospital. The sanctuary is the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital in the U.S., caring for more than 8,000 injured birds each year with a trained staff on stand-by to assist with the Gulf Oil Spill Crisis, and over 700 volunteers on call if needed. If I lived in Florida, I’d work at this place!
Maybe you are a fan of Stephen Colbert? If so, he is heading up The Colbert Nation Gulf of America Fund that you can donate money to. They distribute these funds in the form of grants to nonprofits that work directly to help the people and wildlife affected by this oil spill.
IBRRC: how to help: they are not coordinating volunteer efforts, but you can donate money to their paypal account to support their efforts. If I was in the area, I’d work with this group, either as a bird cleaner or an instructor, training others how to properly clean oiled birds and wildlife.
Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research — a partner to IBRRC in this effort — where you can volunteer, donate money and “adopt a bird”!
USFWS Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response has information, phone numbers to call to report oiled wildlife, and includes links to websites for coordinating volunteer efforts for the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama.
Audubon Society lists a variety of ways you can help (volunteering, donating, etc.) and also provides phone numbers to call if you see oiled wildlife.
Deepwater Horizon Volunteer Information website containing contact information and links, much of which already appears elsewhere.
Deepwater Horizon Day 14: $?, a very interesting blog essay about the value of saving oiled wildlife [Added 7 June 2010]