Experts Disagree On Value Of Cleaning Oily Birds

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Guests

Jon Hamilton, science correspondent, NPR
Brian Sharp, ornithologist. Wrote "Cleaning Oiled Birds Saves Very Few" for the San Francisco Chronicle
Michael Ziccardi, director, Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. Wrote "Cleaning Oiled Birds Is The Right Thing To Do" for the San Francisco Chronicle

Since the Gulf oil spill started, images of wildlife experts cleaning oil-covered birds have become part of the story. But it can cost thousands of dollars to capture and rehabilitate a single oily bird. And some experts argue it does little good, because the majority of cleaned birds die despite the effort.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Since oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico over two months ago, we've all probably seen images of birds covered in black goo and of wildlife experts carefully cleaning, rehabilitating and finally releasing them back into the wild.

It's a small but very visible part of the huge story about the effects of all that oil on all kinds of animal life, and it's a matter of debate.

Some experts argue that it does little, if any, good, and that oil companies pay for such programs as a diversion. Other experts insist that cleaning and rehabilitation techniques continue to improve and that we have a moral responsibility to do what we can where we can.

We'll hear from both sides, and we want to hear from those of you who have participated in recovery efforts after oil spills. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, novelist Walter Mosley joins us on The Opinion Page to consider the many ways he is America. But first, wildlife and the oil from BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico, and we begin here in Studio 3A with NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton. Nice to have you with us today.

JON HAMILTON: Good to be here.

CONAN: And we have to ask, before we get to debate over cleaning birds, is there news, any news about containing that oil spill?

HAMILTON: A little bit. The oil still continues to gush out at about 60,000 barrels a day. We're up to that amount. BP says its containment systems are catching most of that and that relief wells are still being drilled, but we're probably months away from having any real solution to the problem.

In the meantime, the oil is moving. You have changing winds and currents, and they have pushed the oil west, and so the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has extended a ban on catching fish to waters farther west than they were before.

Also, the oil cleanup has resumed after Hurricane Alex, but the waters are still pretty rough. So skimmers don't work very well in waves, and so things are going pretty slowly, and I guess the last thing we can report is that the Navy is sending a blimp.

CONAN: The Navy is sending a blimp. Blimps obviously have a long hover time. They can stay in the air a long time and watch what's going on.

HAMILTON: I think the idea is that you can position the skimmers and so on better if you have a blimp up there, seeing exactly where the strands of oil have gone.

CONAN: And what about that gigantic skimmer, that experimental new ship?

HAMILTON: Yeah, the super-skimmer, made from a supertanker. I believe the name of the ship is A Whale, and it is enormous. I think it's about 1,100 feet long. And it has been doing testing.

And the frustrating thing here is that because the water has been rough the past couple of days, the tests so far are inconclusive. So they think this is a vessel that has the potential to pick up several hundred times as much oil as other skimmers out there, but we just don't know yet.

CONAN: And while we're going to focus on the debate about the animals that we've seen that have been struggling with oiled birds and turtles and such, obviously, there are so many other kinds of life forms that we've not seeing that are also struggling with the oil. What's going on with them, or do we know?

HAMILTON: Well, we don't. A revelatory moment for me was when I was watching one of the BP cameras placed at the bottom of the sea there, you know, 5,000 feet down. And you notice that every now and then, an eel or something would swim by.

And it's a little reminder that there are a lot more creatures beneath the surface of the Gulf than that we see on top, the birds and the turtles and the ones we usually see coated with oil. But most of the marine life in the Gulf is out of sight, and people just don't know what is happening to all of that sea life.

CONAN: And most of the life that's in the Gulf is microscopic, one or two cells.

HAMILTON: Of course, the food chain begins with all of these tiny, tiny, these microorganisms, and they amount to huge amounts, a huge mass of living stuff down there. And they know that in some places, where there is less oxygen, perhaps because of oil, there have been, you know, some of these creatures have died. But nobody really there's no census out there. There's no way to tell right now.

CONAN: And the other part, we're going to be talking about this, and it's an emotional thing for a lot of people, not to say that it isn't important, but the effect on the birds, the brown pelicans and the others that we're going to be talking about, isn't it much more likely to be in terms of reduction or the damage to their habitat, rather than damage directly to the birds?

HAMILTON: Yeah, it's I mean, it's one of these things where and I say this as somebody who grew up in California, who is old enough to see the '69 spill, and I remember spending time as a school kid out there picking up birds and taking them in to be cleaned.

And you certainly it certainly makes an impression on you to see these suffering animals. On the other hand, the tiny, tiny number of birds we're talking about that have been helped, we're talking about a few hundred birds so far that have been cleaned up and released out of tens of millions of birds whose migratory paths cross the Gulf every year.

So, you know, even if you're saving all of them, how much difference does it really make? Whereas the habitat, if the oil destroys the habitat in there, the marshlands, the wetlands, that could be devastating for a huge number of birds, not the small number who are just dying directly from the oil.

CONAN: And remember the food chain. What's happening with those microorganisms affects everything, all the way up to, well, us.

HAMILTON: Exactly.

CONAN: Jon, we want to hear from those who, like you, have participated in oil recovery effects in the past. Give us a call about your experiences, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

First, Brian Sharp joins us. He wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle titled "Cleaning Oiled Birds Saves Very Few." He's an ornithologist who does independent avian ecological research. He operates Ecological Perspectives, a consulting business in Portland, and joins us now from his home in Fossil, Oregon, and nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. BRIAN SHARP (Ornithologist; Author, "Cleaning Oiled Birds Saves Very Few"): Good morning, Neal.

CONAN: And you wrote that while you are sympathetic to the desire to save oiled birds and even helped organize bird-rescue response early in your career, those who do this work should realize they are doing far less good than they would like.

Mr. SHARP: Well, yes, that sums it up in a nutshell. Every time there's an oil spill, there's a bird-rescue effort, and the rehabilitators claim that they have better techniques than they did when the last oil spill happened.

But and as far as I can tell from the data, the data are pretty much the same as the last time, and the question I have is: How many times do we give the rehabilitators the benefit of the doubt?

CONAN: Well, there's a human impulse to try to do something.

Mr. SHARP: Yes, of course, I sympathize wholeheartedly with that impulse. It's it doesn't really matter that it's expensive. I don't think that's the point here, although in the Exxon Valdez, which I was involved with, Exxon spent $42 million for the rescue and the cleaning of 800 birds that were released, which amounts to around $51,250 per bird released.

And if you consider that only about 10 percent of those birds that are released will survive as long as a year, then you're up to around half-a-million dollars per bird that survives one year, which is a consideration.

CONAN: And if you're talking about birds that are extremely endangered, well, maybe that calculates into the equation, but even so, that's a lot of money.

Mr. SHARP: That's a lot of money.

CONAN: And the other part of it that you also wrote about was that because of that bird-rescue effort, Exxon got to write a huge amount off the bill.

Mr. SHARP: Yes, that's what got me involved. I was working for the Department of Justice, preparing the legal case for recovery of damages from the Exxon spill, and this sort of dragged out four or five years, and towards the end of the process, Exxon appealed to the court for credit for the cleanup that they had done, this is both the shoreline cleanup and the wildlife rescue and cleaning.

So I would I was wondering, since the shoreline cleanup was such an ineffective sort of a joke, the polishing of rocks with rags, and it was obviously ineffective, I wondered about the effectiveness of the oiled wildlife rescue, especially the birds.

And so I decided to look into it, and I thought I would find the answer in the literature, in the scientific literature, and it wasn't there. So I rolled up my sleeves and got the data from the bird-banding office for all the oil spills that ever happened since 1969, Santa Barbara blowout, and tabulated the data and came up with a surprising result.

I was quite myself, quite frankly, surprised that most of the recoveries of these oiled birds were recovered in the first, oh, few days, 10, five, 10 days, and that the survival rate of the oiled birds was nowhere near the survival rate of non-oiled birds, which I used a control, and this was true of three species and (unintelligible).

And we had about 200 recoveries, band recoveries to work with, quite a good same, and it the data revealed that these the birds that were released, that survived the cleaning process, and now about 50 percent of the birds don't get through the cleaning process, the rescue itself has a toll.

But of those birds that make it through the whole cleaning process and are released, they surprisingly, like I said, survive only about six days on average after they're released, and that sort of shocked, surprised me, and it shocked the rehabilitation community, as well.

CONAN: And yet as I read in your piece, Exxon did get a considerable write-off because of its recovery effort.

Mr. SHARP: Well, yes, that's the thing that we all, who are involved in the preparation of the legal case against Exxon, were disappointed that Exxon settled for about a billion dollars less than they might have if they had not received this credit from the court, including the credit for the oiled birds.

Now, my research was in process. I was actually in process of doing this when the out-of-court settlement happened. So Exxon got the credit for both the shoreline cleanup and the bird rescue cleanup, even though the birds that were cleaned and released survived such a short period of time and were essentially dying. Most of the birds, you could consider, were dead birds for the purposes of the damage assessment, and Exxon should have paid for that, too.

CONAN: Brian Sharp, stay with us, if you will, also going to ask Jon Hamilton to stay with us, NPR science correspondent, as we continue to talk about the debate over cleaning oiled birds.

Up next, Michael Ziccardi joins us. He's just back from cleaning birds and other animals in the Gulf. He disagrees. If you've participated in recovery efforts after oil spills, please give us a call, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

BP's tab for the Gulf oil spill jumped to more than $3 billion over the past week. That does not include the $20 billion the company agreed to set aside to cover oil-related claims.

Lousy weather in the Gulf continues to slow down the cleanup and containment effort. Today, we're talking about one particular aspect of that cleanup, saving oiled birds and animals. If most oiled birds don't survive even after being cleaned, is it worth it to try?

We want to hear from those of you who have participated in oil recovery efforts. Give us a call, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests: Jon Hamilton, NPR science correspondent; and Brian Sharp, who studies avian ecology and runs Ecological Perspectives in Portland, Oregon. We've posted a link to his op-ed, "Cleaning Oiled Birds Saves Very Few," at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's get Marga(ph) on the line is it Marga or Marga?

MARGA (Caller): It's Marga or Marga.

CONAN: Okay, either one, but...

MARGA: The oil spill I cleaned the birds for was in San Francisco Bay, and I think it was 1971. It was when the van Gogh exhibit was there, which I remembered because we got to see that on the last day, and another story.

But there were two groups cleaning birds then, and I think it's interesting that the group that I was part of, which was the scientists out by the zoo, we had only about 10 percent or maybe less survival. But the hippie group that I think has grown into a much more organized group now, they had a really high recovery rate. They played music. They made sure the birds could feel as comfortable as possible.

Now, I don't know how long those birds that were released were tracked, whether they had any way of tracking their survival, but I do remember at the time, the scientists were saying, well, only five percent of birds recover, and your last caller just said it's up to 50 percent get to be released now.

CONAN: No, no, no, that's not what he said. Fifty percent don't survive the cleaning, and of those who are then released, the average lifespan, he said, was six days.

MARGA: Well, I understood that, but what I'm saying is that 50, if 50 percent did not survive, that means 50 percent or so were released. Whether it was right, they were releasing sick birds or birds that had pneumonia, I don't know.

CONAN: Okay.

MARGA: But anyway, so I don't know, but I just wanted to put in the information that science even then clearly didn't quite know how to do, and when you get economic interests coming in on it, then we were all volunteer effort. Then I don't know whether that makes it better or not.

CONAN: Marga, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Michael Ziccardi, who is joining us from the University of California Davis, just back from the Gulf, where he led a team helping to clean oil from animals. He's director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. He also wrote an opposing op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle titled "Cleaning Oiled Birds Is The Right Thing To Do." There's a link to that on our website, as well. That's at npr.org. And nice to have you with us today.

Mr. MICHAEL ZICCARDI (Director, Oiled Wildlife Care Network, Wildlife Health Center, University of California Davis; Author, "Cleaning Oiled Birds Is The Right Thing To Do"): Thank you, Neal, nice to be here.

CONAN: And is true the vast majority of the birds that are rescued and cleaned don't make it?

Mr. ZICCARDI: I don't believe so. What we've found is that more recently, at least since 1996, within my program here in California, we average between 50 and 75 percent of all live animals collected actually released.

And I think it's an interesting comparison piece that Marga brought up is 1971, the Oregon Standard spill that she was speaking of, the release rate for that spill was 4.5 percent of all live animals collected. And we're now well above half of all live animals coming in.

CONAN: And what's their survival rate after that?

Mr. ZICCARDI: Well, that is the question that we all would like to answer. Mr. Sharp did a good job of compiling the band return data up until 1995 in his paper, but what we found since then is because band returns are typically four percent or less of all animals that are actually banded and released, what we've done is actually put more advanced technologies to that.

So what we've done in spills since is actually used radio telemetry devices, so actually radio transmitters on the back of released animals. And we've done three studies to date.

We have seen in common murres and surf scoters a slight decrease in survival for oiled animals that were released, but mean tracking time for murres was in excess of two months. And a surf scoter study that we're studying right now after the COSCO Busan spill in 2007, we find that more than 40 percent of those animals actually survive to the winter migration.

CONAN: And do they breed, do you know?

Mr. ZICCARDI: That is a question we cannot address right now based on the technologies we have. The radio transmitters that we use have a very limited battery life. So we cannot follow them an entire year, year and a half, to be able to follow that.

However, they have seen in penguins off of South Africa, several spills that have occurred there. Because they are larger animals and they do return to breeding grounds that can be observed, they actually have found significant return to breeding and chicks being hatched multiple years after oiled animals that are cared for and released.

CONAN: We're talking with Brian Sharp, an ornithologist who does independent avian ecological research. And you just heard Michael Ziccardi, who's just returned from rescuing and cleaning animals in the Gulf of Mexico. 800-989-8255. We'd like to hear your stories, and Jeff is on the line, Jeff calling from Marshfield, Massachusetts.

Mr. JEFF CORWIN (Wildlife Biologist): Yes, my name is Jeff Corwin. I'm a wildlife biologist. I'm also a science and environmental expert for NBC News and MSNBC, and I've been done there actually on the front lines with groups like Tri State and International Bird Rescue.

And I think what we really need to do is look at these as two very, very different environments. Comparing what happened in Prince William Sound with the Valdez is a very different scenario than what we're experiencing in the Gulf. And the technologies to sort of get there and rescue these animals is a lot different now than it was back then.

And I've actually followed birds that have been literally mired in the oil spill and have been there as they've gone through the rehabilitation process and watching them take flight again. And it is quite remarkable to actually witness firsthand the resiliency of these birds.

And I would not be surprised if the statistics coming out of the Gulf when birds are rescued in time will have a much higher survivability rate.

CONAN: And to what do you attribute that, given the changes over the years?

Mr. CORWIN: Well, first of all, you know, the response teams, it's really, you know, they have that saying it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes pretty much a village to save a pelican.

So when these birds are rescued, it's really about time. These animals are dehydrating. In some cases, they're actually losing their body temperature. They're suffering from hypothermia, which is kind of hard to believe, being that the environment has, like, a 106 degree heat index.

But once they get those birds in, they hydrate them, they stabilize them, they give them medical intervention and give them time to sort of a little to restore themselves, I think that they do withstand a good chance for survival.

Now, that's not to say that there will not be long-term consequences from ingesting chemicals, but I think the idea of not getting on the front lines and saving these birds, especially something like the brown pelican. This is a bird that became regionally extinct in '63, and it just got off the endangered species list. And the idea that we wouldn't do our very best to restore this species for me is just terrible.

CONAN: Jeff Corwin, thank you very much for that. That's interesting, appreciate the phone call.

Mr. CORWIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Brian Sharp, I wonder your response as you listen to this.

Mr. SHARP: Well, thank you. The percentage of the birds that's making it through the cleaning, the rescue process, is higher now. And if you measure the results from that, there is a better there is an increase in the percentage that goes through the successfully goes through and survives the cleaning process itself, although there are secondary infections that happen in captivity.

And so you cannot keep them very long before you have to release them because of other infections that they get. So they do come out of the cleaning process, though, impaired. I think that's probably a good word to use.

They have gastrointestinal problems and pulmonary problems and anemia and hypothermia. Hypothermia is something that may excuse me that is very dangerous because if you drop the body temperature, you lose the bird.

But I want to comment upon the radio tracking that is supposed to be better -that gives you better data on survival. What they have found from the radio tracking data versus the banding data, we have long term recoveries of banded birds that are oiled, but just a few. Maybe about 10 or 15 percent of the birds that are cleaned make it through to a year. During the radio tracking, Mr. Ziccardi had mentioned that they can only track before about six months. And in the case of the pelican that we studied in California after two oil spills in 1996 - excuse me, '91 and '92, rather, or '90 and '91. I'm sorry. They have found that the pelicans - let me read what they found for pelicans.

They found that after the - by 1992, the control pelicans that are the non-oiled pelicans could still be accounted for on the California Coast, but only eight of 91 - that is only 9 percent of the oiled pelicans - could be found in the same survey. So there's a tremendous difference in the brown pelican survival rate. I also want to - excuse me?

CONAN: If you could, quickly. I wanted to get Michael Ziccardi back on.

Mr. SHARP: Yeah. I just wanted to mention about the - I looked at the Exxon data, the data on banded bird recoveries prior to the Exxon, and they survived six days. And after the Exxon, the survival day - the number of days survived went up to eight days. And so you have a small improvement. Yes. And - but it's not a significant - statistically, a significant improvement. And two days -eight days survived by the common murres is, for oiled birds, is not - is hardly comparable to the 600 days survived by the non-oiled control group.

And they've done so more telemetry work on common murres in California. But the data show that about - only about 15 percent of them survive up to a year, whereas in non-oiled common murres, about 95 percent of the common murres would survive a year. So there's a 17 times difference. There's a 17-fold difference between the non - the oiled and the non-oiled common murres, even with the newer data from the telemetry that Mr. Ziccardi mentioned. So I'd like to comment on that.

CONAN: Okay. Thank you. Stay with us, both of you, if you would. We're talking about oiled birds and survivability, obviously, with the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Michael Ziccardi, if you - I know you probably want to get back.

Dr. ZICCARDI: No, I'm actually fine.

CONAN: Oh, good. Are you comfortable with the response you just heard from Brian Sharp?

Dr. ZICCARDI: I'd like to reply.

CONAN: Yeah. That's why I'm giving you the opportunity.

Dr. ZICCARDI: That would be great.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Dr. ZICCARDI: Okay. So that common murre study is one that we conducted here in California. So what we found is that survival in oiled, rehabilitated common murres did decrease. It was approximately four times. The 95 percent statistic that Mr. Sharp did quote was not our control animals, though. So those - we did have rehabilitated controls that we captured and cared for, and we did find a significant decrease in survival in those, as well. What we did find though, again, is that we had mean tracking times greater than two months for oiled, rehabilitated and released animals - so, much higher than the six to eight days that Mr. Sharp quoted.

I will also state that since 1995 - which was when Mr. Sharp's paper was published - oiled wildlife rehabilitation has drastically changed and improved. We've become more professional. We've organized internationally. We now have protocols and procedures that people follow. Things are done in a much different way in the past 15 years than prior to that. So even looking prior to Exxon Valdez, as compared to the five years after that, I do feel that there are significant increases that have occurred since that time.

CONAN: All right. Let's get...

Dr. ZICCARDI: That is bearing out in some of the more advanced techniques that we're using now to assess that survival.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Jeff, Jeff who is from Nashua in New Hampshire.

JEFF (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. One comment I'd like to make: We've got a group of people down in the Gulf, and we've noticed a lot of the bird rescuing has taken place miles from the actual cleanup point. And many of the techniques have not changed in about 30, 40 years, and so the birds are coming in very highly stressed. And, you know, Jimmy Buffett and Mark Castlow from Dragonfly Boats have actually built a triage boat to go out there with them. And this is the sort of thing we should be looking at, is changing the techniques of bird rescue so that they can triaged out on the water, and once they're partially cleaned up, bring them back into shore. That's all. I'll get off the line.

CONAN: All right, Jeff. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate that. And here's an email we have from Randy: I was regional pollution response coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the late '70s and early '80s. We did oiled bird rehabilitation training, as well as response along the Pacific Coast. Even though the success may be low, this is a great opportunity to get hands-on experience with birds. Even though it's unfortunate, we teach and train new and upcoming conservationists and expose a new group of people to the problem of oil spills and pollution events.

And Brian Sharp, Michael Ziccardi, I think you could both appreciate that perhaps we're learning more and that new data will come out of this. Brian Sharp, very quickly?

Mr. SHARP: Well, the techniques for cleaning and getting through the rescue process have improved, obviously, with the better data. But the thing is that what's really very difficult to get at is the physiological condition of the bird. Because of the internal ingestion and the breathing and the absorption of the oil, these birds are very, very, very stressed physiologically. And that is the real reason why they don't survive very well compared to non-oiled birds after release.

CONAN: And Brian - excuse me, Michael Ziccardi, we just have a few seconds left.

Dr. ZICCARDI: Sure. While the cleaning techniques haven't changed significantly over time, the things that have changed is our ability to minimize stress in care, providing them with excellent housing, but also the veterinary skills to be able to weed out those animals that are injured. Using the techniques that have been developed by veterinarians, we can actually look at those animals that are injured, humanely euthanize those that we don't feel are going to survive. And while the release percentages...

CONAN: And I'm afraid I have to leave it there. I apologize. Michael Ziccardi...

Dr. ZICCARDI: Not a problem.

CONAN: ...Brian Sharp, thank you both for your time. Jon Hamilton, too. This is NPR News.

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