Brown and white pelicans affected by the BP oil spill before and after being cleaned at the Fort Jackson centre in Louisiana. Photo: IBRRC on Flickr.
Should birds affected by the BP oil spill be cleaned or killed? According to a German biologist, only one percent of rehabilitated birds survive. One man who is in the thick of the bird cleaning operation however, says this biologist's allegations are based on flawed surveys.
Animal biologist Sylvia Gaus sparked the "cruel to be kind" debate this week when she told German magazine Der Spiegel that, according to many surveys, most birds die after being rehabilitated because of organ damage, trauma, anaemia and in some cases, a return to the oil spot they were rescued from.
Gaus directly attacked the work of Jay Holcomb - executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) - saying that he was wasting money on sending birds to painful deaths.
Jay Holcomb, executive director of the IBRRC, is currently based at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Center, in Buras, Louisiana. He has worked on over 200 oil spills, cleaning and rehabilitating oiled birds for over two decades.
The papers cited by opponents of oiled bird rehabilitation tend to rely on
anecdotal band returns (meaning there is no daily tracking method for
individuals released and no control groups observed.) These surveys are
misleading because they fail to consider some important variables: the
protocols used to care for the birds in question, the experience of the
organisation caring for the oiled birds and basic things like how the bird's health
and water proofing were assessed prior to release. The surveys lump together
released birds treated at various centres, under different conditions, with
different resources and experience levels.
A growing number of studies using radio telemetry, satellite tracking and long-term breeding colony observations are more accurately illustrating the post-oiling survival of sea birds [see examples].
These studies indicate that many seabirds do survive the oiling and rehabilitation process successfully returning to their wild condition. And in some cases (when birds are located and observed in breeding colonies) have been shown to breed successfully for many years following their oiling, rehabilitation and release. As survivorship may be correlated to individual species it is irresponsible to draw conclusions of survivability from one species to another, rather, in-depth studies must be conducted for each species considered if we are to begin to answer this question with any measure of reliability."
The pelly clean-up from start to finish
Pelicans become covered in oil because the fish they eat often hide below floating surface oil and when the pelicans plunge into the water to catch them, they become oiled.
Oiled pelicans brought to the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Center, where Jay works. Photo: IBRRC.
The things that are working in our favour are that these are healthy and strong birds and the oil is aged enough so that it does not have much smell to it or volatile aromatics.
A pelican treated at the Fort Jackson centre. Photo: IBRRC.
What is a problem for the birds and us is that the oil is very gooey and thick. It is taking about 45 minutes to an hour to wash each bird as we have to pre-treat the birds with a warmer light oil to loosen the crude oil up and then wash the bird using DAWN dishwashing liquid. Lots of it! We are getting it off but it takes some scrubbing. We then have to rinse the birds with a high pressure nozzle.
Even beaks have to be cleaned to prevent the birds from ingesting the oil. Photo: Les Stone/ IBRRC.
After being cleaned, pelicans stay in an outdoor in closure for a week or so before being released. Photo: IBRRC.
All of our birds (including pelicans) are federally tagged upon release. Sightings and band recoveries indicate that a high percentage of them survive. One recent example was a brown pelican, oiled and rehabilitated, during the American Trader spill in 1990 in southern California. This bird was sighted still alive in Newport Beach earlier this year, 20 years on, and is considered one of the oldest brown pelicans ever recorded."
A pelican released from the Fort Jackson centre. Photo: IBRRC.
Beachside residents capture a pelican and wash it in the bath (below). Video posted on YouTube by "aldamwil000" 12 June 2010.
Video posted on YouTube by "aldamwil000" 12 June 2010.
A crate of pelicans arrives at a rescue centre (location unknown). Video posted on YouTube by "ajdavis292" 12 June 2010.
The Fort Jackson centre where Jay Holcomb works. Video posted on YouTube by NationalWildlife, 16 June 2010.
Clean brown pelicans in an enclosure (location unknown). Posted on YouTube by "ajdavis292" 13 June 2010.