Natural Debate

Can Oiled Seabirds Be Rescued, or Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?

  • Sharon Levy
  • Feb 01, 1999
I am standing in a steamy shower stall with a tall man and a distressed duck at a special California facility at Humboldt State University. I hold the duck, a female white-winged scoter, while Rich, the tall stranger, rinses her with hot water. Under my coveralls, I am itchy and drenched in sweat. But compared to the scoter, I'm comfortable. I haven't been soaked in oil. Eventually the whole scene gets to be too much for the duck and she passes out. (Scoters apparently faint when under stress.) Rich looks worried. He rinses faster.

Like dozens of other volunteers, I felt compelled to help when a cargo ship spilled 5,000 gallons of fuel oil in Humboldt Bay, near my home on California's north coast. When we released rehabilitated birds, we all felt great. Later, I learned that what we had done was controversial. Many biologists believe that rescuing oiled birds serves more to soothe human feelings than to help wildlife and some studies show that many cleaned birds survive for only a few days. But there are a number of encouraging success stories.

Plumage normally keeps a seabird warm and dry even as it dives far below the surface. When oil coats feathers, the plumage loses its ability to insulate, leaving a bird susceptible to hypothermia. Beached birds also suffer from dehydration, anemia and pneumonia.

Rehabilitation techniques have come a long way in the past quarter century. But critics contend that the surviving birds represent an insignificant proportion of the bird populations affected in most spills. "Future oil company support for bird rescue should be considered a public relations effort to counteract negative public opinion," wrote Oregon biologist Brian Sharp in a 1995 report. He estimates that only 4 percent of cleaned birds live for a year in the wild.

"Bird survival will be quite different from spill to spill," says David Jessup, a veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game's Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which has established regional facilities to provide rapid response during such catastrophes. "The species involved, the toxicity of the oil, the weather and length of time between oiling and being picked up, all influence survival."

After the Platform Irene oil spill near Santa Barbara last winter, researchers conducted one of the first studies using radiotelemetry to directly compare the survival of oiled and unoiled western gulls. "It was a sticky, nasty crude oil that pasted the birds' feathers, wings and legs to their bodies," recalls veterinarian Jonna Mazet, director of the state's Oiled Wildlife Care Network. "Following release, all of the rehabilitated gulls survived for the life of their radio transmitters [more than eight months] and did as well or better than a control group of unoiled birds."
The most successful cases of oiled-bird rescue have occurred at the tip of South Africa, where African (jackass) penguin colonies have suffered from several serious oil spills over the last decade. Penguins have a better chance of surviving oiling and rehabilitation than most other seabirds. They have a layer of blubber to keep them warm. And their normal life cycle involves periods of fasting. Following a spill in 1994, more than 65 percent of the 4,076 penguins that were cleaned were later resighted in good health.

Dee Boersma, a University of Washington biologist who works with Magellanic penguins in Argentina, hasn't experienced the same success. "The reason South Africa worked is they had a huge aquarium and fire department that delivered water free so that they could really wash the birds. In Argentina, it's a desert. The nearest town is many miles from the large penguin colonies and there's no water."
During a major spill off Argentina in 1991, Boersma estimated 17,000 birds were oiled. "Perhaps 360 birds were recovered, giving a false impression that the population was being rescued," she says. 
At the Humboldt spill, I experienced the joy of seeing birds recover as well as the sorrow of seeing them suffer. If an oil spill does hit here again, chances are I'll go back to the wildlife care center to help out. I'll do this for some good reasons and for some bad ones. I'll do it because I know action is an effective antidote to the grief I'll feel. I'll do it in the hope that a majority of the birds that go through rehabilitation will survive. That's a goal that seems far more attainable here than on the remote beaches of Argentina.

Yes, I'd work at the center again. But I'd know as I started up my car engine to go there that I was applying a Band-Aid, not solving the problem of oil pollution. Like everyone else in our oil-addicted society, I am still part of that dilemma.

Californian Sharon Levy specializes in topics relating to science and nature.

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