An oiled white ibis lands on an island in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana June 8.
An oiled white ibis lands on an island in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana June 8. Charlie Riedel/AP
Brian Sharp, an ornithologist who has a private consulting firm in Oregon, says that on the news lately, he has heard wildlife experts in Louisiana talk about their efforts to clean up wild birds that have gotten covered in oil.
"And they're saying, 'Yes, we can save these birds,' and, 'Yeah, we can take care of them,' " Sharp says.
But he seriously doubts it.
Sharp says he believes many of the cleaned birds will simply not survive after being released back to the wild. That's because in the wake of the Exxon Valdez accident, he looked at several species of seabirds affected by oil to see how long they lived after being washed and banded with ID tags.
Based on tags that were later found, Sharp says the majority of rehabilitated birds didn't last long after being released — just days, or weeks.
Michael Seymour, an ornithologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, talks from Grand Isle beach in Louisiana about some of the bird species affected by the BP oil spill. "Literally every day, we're checking every colony out here to see what the progress of the oil is," he says. Seymour hopes that habitat damage won't be permanent, but says it's difficult to judge how long effects will linger.
Brown pelicans: Only last year did the brown pelican come off the endangered species list, and now it faces trouble once again. "The majority of the birds that we're seeing that are oil-impacted are brown pelicans," Seymour says. Brown pelicans, which are the state bird of Louisiana, fly over the water looking for prey and plunge headfirst to catch fish. Both diving for fish and swimming through oily waters can cause problems for these birds, says Seymour.
Laughing gulls: Laughing gulls during mating season have a striking red bill and a black head with eyes rimmed in white, according to the National Audubon Society. But all you see of this laughing gull is a layer of black oily muck. Laughing gulls tend to hunt by picking up things off the surface of the water, which is where they can run into problems, Seymour says.
Egrets and herons: These birds feed along the shorelines, beaches and tidal areas. Some herons and egrets are exposed to oil as they wade and hunt food. It sticks to their bellies, legs, chest — even their neck and head — as they dunk their faces into the water to grab fish or small crustaceans. Seymour says he's particularly worried about reddish egrets. "Their numbers are declining, and we don't have a whole lot of colonies of them left in the state," he says. "And certainly our colonies aren't very big that we do have."
—Whitney Blair Wyckoff
"When they're released, they're still incapacitated," he says. "They're still sick."
The birds hadn't been just covered in oil — they'd ingested it as they tried to preen. Sharp says he does understand how agonizing it is to see the suffering of oiled birds, and he thinks that if people want to try to clean them, that's their choice.
"Just so that they don't deceive themselves and the public that they're really having great, grand results and saving lots and lots, a high proportion of the birds," Sharp says. "Because it's just the opposite."
Other scientists have come to a similar conclusion. One biologist in Germany recently has been widely quoted as saying that oiled birds should be left alone or euthanized.
That bothers Michael Fry, a toxicologist who works at the American Bird Conservancy. Some research doesn't support such a grim view, he says.
"The success at rehabilitation goes all over the map, from like 3 percent of the birds that are brought in, to over 90 percent of the birds that are brought in," Fry says.
Many factors can influence the outcome of a rehabilitation effort, Fry says — everything from the type of oil to the species of bird.
"Loons and grebes, for instance, are very delicate birds when it comes to oil spills," he says. "Gulls are tough birds. Penguins are very tough birds."
He notes that studies of African penguins cleaned after oil spills show that most survive and go on to breed.
Plus, Fry says, studies done years ago may not reflect the success rates that rescuers could have today because modern rehabilitation techniques cause birds less stress, and birds are carefully monitored to make sure they are ready to be released.
"The responders are getting much better at assessing the health of the birds," Fry says.
But some scientists say it's not clear how much difference that makes for the birds' survival.
"They are getting better care in captivity," says Dan Anderson, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the effect of oil on birds.
A brown pelican, Louisiana's state bird, is covered in oil along the coast about five weeks after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Biologists are concerned the disaster may threaten the population, which came off the endangered species list just last year.
Nesting brown pelicans land on an island in oil-filled Barataria Bay.
Two brown pelicans stained with oil sit atop small trees on Cat Island in Barataria Bay on June 6. Oil that spreads to nests can be deadly for eggs.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Oil retention booms lie tangled in the growth near the nests of young brown pelicans on New Harbor Island in the Gulf of Mexico, two weeks after the spill.
A rescue team tries to capture brown pelicans on Queen Bess island near Grand Isle on June 5. The island is one of Louisiana's most valuable rookeries, or breeding grounds, and one of the hardest hit by oil.
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United States Fish and Wildlife biologist Kayla Dibenedetto attempts to catch a brown pelican at Grand Isle. Dibenedetto and a partner chased the bird for more than two hours before giving up because of darkness.
Oiled pelicans rescued June 3 from Grand Terre Island and other barrier islands near Grand Isle huddle in a pen in the rescue center next to Fort Jackson in Louisiana. Once the crowd of cameras went away, they began to move apart.
Veterinarians clean an oil-covered brown pelican at the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on May 15 in Buras, La. The birds are first rubbed with vegetable oil, which breaks up the crude oil, and then scrubbed with Dawn dish soap.
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Pelicans take flight near an oil-covered shoreline on May 26 on Brush Island, La. The state has approximately 100,000 brown pelicans, which came off the endangered species list only last year.
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Still, he says, "I'd like to see a report, you know, with statistics and everything on how well these newer techniques are working."
About 20 years ago, he and Fry collaborated on a study that used radio tracking to follow brown pelicans in California that had gotten caught in oil spills, and then cleaned up and released.
"There was one bird that made it for 19 years," Anderson says. "But most of the birds didn't even make it through the first six months."
And the survivors didn't seem to breed, at least during two years of tracking. Anderson says he thinks scientists should try to find out if brown pelicans in this latest spill fare any better.
"The question is still under debate, and legitimately so," he says. "Some follow-up work on this oil spill needs to be done."
Workers who clean oiled birds also want to see more research on how the animals do once they are released.
Mark Russell, a project manager with the International Bird Rescue Research Center, says that the Gulf spill seems like "a golden opportunity to find more information out."
But Russell says that in the absence of clear answers, the birds' suffering still demands action.
"Until we know, we have a moral obligation to stay the course and care for these animals," he says, "and we owe it to each individual animal."
Sometimes, Russell says, euthanasia may be the right choice if it looks like there's no chance a bird could return to the wild. But if recovery seems possible, he thinks a bird should get that chance.