Dead birds smothered in icky, gooey brown oil are the iconic images of most any oil spill, including the ongoing one in the Gulf. Even a small amount of oil can kill a bird. Oil sticks to feathers, destroying their waterproofing ability and exposing the bird to extremes of temperature. And ingested oil can harm internal organs.
The birds that survive long enough to be rescued can often be cleaned. The International Bird Rescue Research Center has treated birds from more than 150 spills over the last four decades, and it has teamed up with Tri-State Bird Rescue to wash birds rescued from the Gulf spill.
Cleaning the birds is a multi-step process, and it can be a stressful one for the bird. Beforehand, the bird is examined and its health stabilized. It may be suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, hypothermia or the toxic effects of ingested oil. Once the bird is healthy enough to handle the ordeal of washing, trained staff and volunteers clean it in a tub of warm water mixed with one percent Dawn dishwashing detergent. (IBRRC discovered in the late 1970s not only that Dawn was great at removing oil, but also that it didn’t irritate birds’ skin or eyes and could even be ingested—accidentally, of course—without harm.) When the water is dirty, the bird is moved to a second tub, and so on, until the water remains clean. Then the bird is thoroughly rinsed. Once it is dry, the bird will preen and restore the overlapping, weatherproof pattern of its feathers. After it is deemed healthy, the bird is released to an oil-free area.
Cleaning one bird can take hours and up to 300 gallons of water. Survival rates are about 50 to 80 percent on average, the IBRRC says, though this depends on the species. (As of earlier this week, the center had rescued 442 live birds, 40 of which had been cleaned were healthy enough to be released back into the wild.)
Some scientists, however, have questioned the value of putting so much effort into saving birds when the benefits are unclear. “It might make us feel better to clean them up and send them back out,” University of California, Davis ornithologist Daniel Anderson told Newsweek. “But there’s a real question of how much it actually does for the birds, aside from prolong their suffering.”
There is no long-term data on survival after the birds have been released. But there is concern that many birds may simply return to their oil-soaked homes to die. And there is evidence that the survivors have shorter life spans and fewer surviving chicks.
But it’s hard to just leave these creatures to die, especially as they have been harmed by a man-made disaster. To me, at least, it seems irresponsible to not even try. As we begin to measure the damage from this spill, leaving these innocent victims on their own shouldn’t be an option.