Should Oiled Birds Be Cleaned? It's heart-wrenching to see photos of oiled birds in the wake of a spill, and rehabilitators spend a lot of time cleaning off the oil. But researchers disagree on how well a cleaned bird will do once it's released back into the wild. Some studies have found that cleaned birds don't breed as well and seem to die quickly.
NPR logo

Should Oiled Birds Be Cleaned?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Should Oiled Birds Be Cleaned?

Should Oiled Birds Be Cleaned?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And here's another scene from the Gulf: In Louisiana, brown pelicans and other birds are resting in a rehabilitation center after having a coating of oil washed off their feathers. But there's a debate about whether washing them really helps or just prolongs their suffering.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Brian Sharp is an ornithologist who lives in Oregon. And lately, on the news, he's heard wildlife experts talking about their efforts to clean up oiled birds.

Mr. BRIAN SHARP (Ornithologist): And they're saying, yes, we can save these birds, and, yeah, we can take care of them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He seriously doubts it.

Mr. SHARP: They're not going to survive many of them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's what Sharp believes based on studies he did 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, he says the majority of birds didn't last long after being released - just days, or weeks.

Mr. SHARP: When they're released, they're still incapacitated. They're still sick.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the birds hadn't been just covered in oil. They'd ingested it as they'd tried to preen. He does understand how agonizing it is to see the suffering of oiled birds and thinks if people want to try to clean them, that's their choice.

Mr. SHARP: Just so that they don't deceive themselves and the public that they're really having great, grand results and saving lots and lots of - a high proportion of the birds, because it's just the opposite.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: 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 really bothers Michael Fry. He's a toxicologist who works at the American Bird Conservancy. And he says some research doesn't support such a grim view.

Mr. MICHAEL FRY (Toxicologist): 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says a lot of things matter: the kind of oil, how long the birds are covered in oil and the species of bird.

Mr. FRY: Loons and grebes are very delicate birds when it comes to oil spills. Gulls are tough birds. Penguins are very tough birds.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says studies of African penguins cleaned after oil spills show that most survive and go on to successfully breed.

Plus, he says, studies done years ago may not reflect the success rates that rescuers could have today. Modern rehabilitation techniques cause birds less stress, and birds are carefully monitored to make sure they're ready to be released.

Mr. FRY: The responders are getting much better at assessing the health of the birds.

But even if veterinary medicine has advanced, some scientists say it's not clear how much difference that makes.

Professor DAN ANDERSON (Biologist, University of California, Davis): I'd like to see a report, you know, with statistics and everything on how well these newer techniques are working.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dan Anderson is a biologist at the University of California, Davis. He's studied the effect of oil on birds. About 20 years ago, he collaborated with Fry to use radio tracking to follow brown pelicans in California that were cleaned after oil spills.

Prof. ANDERSON: There was one bird that made it for 19 years. But most of the birds didn't even make it through the first six months.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And the survivors didn't seem to breed, at least during two years of tracking. Anderson says scientists should try to find out if brown pelicans in this latest spill fare any better.

Prof. ANDERSON: The question is still under debate, and legitimately so. Some follow-up work on this oil spill needs to be done.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Workers who clean oiled birds also want to see more research on how the animals do once they are released.

Mark Russell is with the International Bird Rescue Research Center, which is cleaning birds in the Gulf.

Mr. MARK RUSSELL (Project Manager, International Bird Rescue Research Center): It seems to me it's a golden opportunity to find more information out.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says in the absence of clear answers, the birds' suffering still demands action.

Mr. RUSSELL: Until we know, we have a moral obligation to stay the course and care for these animals, and we owe it to each individual animal.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says sometimes euthanasia may be the right choice. But if recovery seems possible, he thinks a bird should get that chance.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.