A handful of oiled birds, dead and alive, have begun turning up on the shores of the Gulf Coast. The ongoing offshore spill has likely affected many, many more birds that will never be recovered. But for the ones that reach shore alive, what is the most humane thing to do? Images of dedicated volunteers working to clean the oil from the feathers of birds caught in thick crude are standard issue after a spill. But should they be?
Sylvia Gaus, biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park in Germany speaks from personal experience, and cites numerous scientific studies in her recent interview with Der Spiegel: “the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent,” Gaus says. “We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds. Gaus is not alone; after the 2002 Prestige spill off Spain’s Coast, the World Wildlife Fund argued that birds weakened enough from oil contamination to be captured are generally beyond help.
“Therefore,” a spokesman stated, “the World Wildlife Fund is very
reluctant to recommend cleaning.”
Oil affects birds in multiple insidious ways: the physical effects of the oil on feathers leads to fatal losses of waterproofing and subsequent hypothermia. Those that are able to preen the oil off and restore their feathers’ water shedding properties often succumb to the toxic effects of oil on the liver and kidneys. Birds weakened by oil are immunosuppressed and many do not survive the massive stress induced by captivity, the washing process, and often lengthy rehabilitation. Still, many birds do survive the process and are released back to the wild with gleaming, sleek feathers restored, so is it worth all the time, money and effort involved to return those birds to the sea? And is it humane to subject so many birds to the stress of cleaning when so few apparently survive?
The Prestige spill killed 250,000 birds. Of the thousands that were cleaned, most died within a few days, and only 600 lived to be released into the wild. According to a British study of the spill, the median lifespan of a bird that was cleaned and released was only seven days. Proponents of cleaning efforts point out that those few survivors have shown their superior resilience and are exactly the birds that should be helped back into the population. And many people offer the more public relations-minded argument that the public will not tolerate oiled birds being left to die in the wild.
Gaus argues that a reasonable middle ground would be to capture affected birds and humanely euthanize them. The SEANET blogger points out that Canada has adopted something of a hybrid policy: when endangered or threatened species are affected by a spill, those birds are cleaned and rehabilitated. For other species, the decision to clean birds is made based on the likelihood of their successful release. This calculation includes the temperament and tolerance of captivity for each species, as well as factors like the temperature of the water where the spill occurred (warmer water = better prognosis for bird survival). When the success rate is likely to be low, humane euthanasia is elected.
The United States will likely continue cleaning birds routinely in response to spills. SEANET, being very comfortable with the idea of dead birds generally, only suggests that we evaluate our spill response policy to best serve seabirds, considering both the population’s survival, and the individual’s humane treatment, and not just our own desire to do something in the face of such a tragedy. When the chance of long term survival is dim, we must evaluate our motives in such labor-intensive, expensive and, for the birds, massively stressful, endeavor.