Every Bird Matters
news and views from international bird rescue

December 1, 2007

With proactive capture and quick care, oiled birds CAN be rehabilitated

Special message from Jay Holcomb, IBRRC, Executive Director:

Hello friends and supporters,

First I want to say thank you to all of you who have donated to our efforts. Secondly, I want to answer some questions that have I have been asked recently, by the media and concerned people, to set the record straight. My time is limited so I will start with one question and add more as I can.

1. Do rehabilitated birds in oil spills survive once they have been released?

I wish I had a yes or no answer but it just is not that simple. The truth is that, yes, many have a very good chance of survival. We have documented many survival stories but it is very difficult to follow up on sea birds that live in colonies in remote areas and who basically look the same except for little silver bands on one leg. In most cases we receive less than a 1% return rate on banded birds and especially sea birds that live in colonies that sometimes range in the millions. But we are always working to establish and apply any post release studies that we can. Some of the best “post release” information to date has come from the ongoing study of bird species that are just plain easier to study; Snowy plovers, African Penguins that live in predictable areas and waterfowl that are hunted to name a few.

Oiled Penguins

In 2000 IBRRC, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), based in Cape Town, South Africa, joined forces to rehabilitate 21,000 African Penguins. The birds were oiled when the bulk carrier, Treasure, sunk between two large and important penguin colonies on Dassen and Robben Islands off the Cape Town coast.

Collectively our team turned a vacant train warehouse and six surrounding acres into an oiled penguin rehabilitation center. Within three months, using our proven oiled bird rehabilitation methods, we released 19,500 healthy viable penguins back into their colonies. It was truly a miracle and we were as astonished as anyone that we were able to accomplish this under great odds. Every released penguin was flipper tagged and birds have been studied aggressively since that time. All post release studies have shown that these birds have survived, and reproduced equal to non-oiled penguins.

The rehabilitation of oiled penguins is now considered by Cape Nature Conservation as one of the most important management tools used in the survival plan of this vulnerable species. These findings can be found on the group’s website and I strongly suggest you read them.

Oiled Shorebirds

In 1999 IBRRC responded to the New Carissa oil spill on the Southern Oregon coast at Coos Bay. During that spill we captured and rehabilitated 32 oiled snowy plovers; a species of great concern. It is important to point out that snowy plovers are small shorebirds. Biologists and others who know little of the details in rehabilitating oiled birds believed oiled shorebirds could not be rehabilitated. This perception is completely incorrect and unfortunate.

We have successfully rehabilitated and released many healthy shorebirds; dunlin, sanderling, piping plovers and now snowy plovers. In fact, these birds do the best of many of the birds we receive, if they are captured before they become weak and sick.

Of the 32 oiled snowy plovers that we captured, washed and rehabilitated during the New Carissa oil spill, all were released as healthy birds and were studied extensively showing that their life spans and breeding activity were the same as non-oiled plovers. Once again proving that the rehabilitation of oiled shorebirds can work when they are given a chance and it is done correctly.

The most important factor in all of this is initiating a proactive and aggressive capture program before the birds get to weak and succumb to hypothermia and predators. It was exactly those factors that made people believe shorebirds could not be rehabilitated. Prior to aggressively capturing these birds, we would only get sick, weak and dying birds in the center; therefore, high mortality. However, with a proactive approach, professionals with the proper tools and capture methods, many oiled shorebirds can be captured and rehabilitated. These shorebirds do very well in rehabilitation as they are ravenous eaters and seem to handle the stress of the process very well. We typically release over 90% of the shorebirds we proactively capture in oil spills.

Oiled Waterfowl

Most of our band returns from oiled birds that were rehabilitated and released come from waterfowl. Unfortunately waterfowl are hunted; but at least we get some feedback on our released animals. This group includes all ducks and geese and hunters are supposed to return the bands.

We have had oiled rehabilitated ducks hunted years later from many places in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Utah, Nevada and Canada indicating that many survived, sometimes for many years before they were shot.

One of our most important pieces of information came from the band returns of five hunted king eiders from a spill we did in Alaska in the remote Pribilof Islands in 1996. 180 oiled king eiders were sent to our center in Anchorage for rehabilitation, a six-hour trip for these wild birds. Once rehabilitated, they took another six hour flight and were released back in the Pribilof Islands. In the following six years, five of them were hunted by local native hunters and the bands were reported. This by no means suggest that they all lived but these five birds went through the same treatment as the other 175 or so and survived indicating that this species can be rehabilitated and survive the logistical time delays that required them to travel in cages for long hours. See also: IBRRC Pribilof Spill Response Report

One other important spill was a spill on the Santa Clara River in Southern California where we captured and rehabilitated 175 very heavily oiled mallards, widgeons and other waterfowl species. Over the next six years, six of those ducks were hunted and reported. It may seem like a small number but it was significant to us, as we knew what those animals endured being covered in very heavy and thick oil. You can read about this on our web site under Band Returns/Santa Clara River spill, 1991.

There is much more to say about this topic and I will pick it up in future messages. For now I need to get back to the birds.

Thanks for reading,

Jay Holcomb, IBRRC

Tags: , , ,

6 Responses to “With proactive capture and quick care, oiled birds CAN be rehabilitated”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for the great info. Many Cosco Busan birds were not captured in those first few days after the spill, before they became weakened. The OWCN did not have enough equipment or people to capture these birds. What a tragically lost opportunity.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    IBRRC is doing such amazing and extraordinary rehabilitation, and I’m grateful everyday that these talented, caring individuals live and work here in the Bay Area. Thank you Jay, and thank you to everyone who has contributed to the well-being of our local and migratory bird residents.

    In agreement with the first person who posted here — I wish the organizational efforts of OWCN and the rescue pursuits were more streamlined. I know the spill created a challenge of limited hands and limited resources.

    But because I was one of the monitors, reporting oiled birds out in the field (and still am), I saw and felt the intense emotional distress all of us shared — of not being able to get OWCN people out to many areas with affected birds, even many days after the spill, after the initial chaos.

    I hope those involved in the rescue will take stock of the comments we’ve all submitted (for future reference) — on ways to improve coordination between the actual rescuers and those of us who aren’t yet trained to rescue, but who have been deeply involved nonetheless.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Hopefully the OWCN will have a plan for “proactice capture and quick care” next time around. Were the preparations based on a lowball estimate of avian casualties? The rescue did not seem well coordinated until 5 or 6 days after the spill. Maybe the ratio of released to euthanized birds would have been higher. These comments are meant constructively for the future, not to disparage the hard work and successes of this effort.

  4. . . . Lisa and Robb . . . Says:

    Is it not correct that much of the bird capture took place at night, and may not have been observed?

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Hi, Lisa and Robb — It’s absolutely true that those of us looking for oiled birds couldn’t have seen the many rescue efforts that were underway. And I keep hoping that many of the birds I and the others reported were, in fact, caught and did not perish.

    The frustration occurred when there seemed to be a communication gap between what we were seeing in the field and where rescuers were being dispatched.

    We had at least one instance where a fellow volunteer reported many oiled scaup at a single location (at least 30 of them on the beach). When she returned two days later, they were still there, some of them now dead. A park official told her there had been no rescue efforts at that location as far as he knew.

    When she drove to Berkeley to inform OWCN in person about this situation, the staff there didn’t seem to have knowledge of this park, and had to ask this volunteer to show them on the map. This was at least 3 days after she initially reported the birds to the hotline.

    It was that type of incident that I hope can be rectified if we encounter a situation like this again. Because as the other commenter here said, it in NO WAY detracts from the exceptional and dedicated work that was done on behalf of the birds.

    It just didn’t always seem as though the messages were getting through — or at least it felt that way from the other side of the binoculars. And those of us who didn’t have the proper training had to literally stand by and watch — where in some cases, the birds were so ill and lethargic, we could have picked them up ourselves if we were permitted.

    (For my part, I will be getting the proper training asap so that I never feel as helpless in such a situation again. It was pretty traumatic for all of us in that regard, hence my post here, and my hope that comments here can help in the future.)

  6. Anonymous Says:

    My experience somewhat matches the experience of the previous person who wrote in. What a sad and frustrating situation. I hope that there will be a way in the future to more efficiently dispatch rescuers.
    Clearly, there needs to be a way to mobilize, train, and equip more rescuers. Also, I hope that there are more resources for getting the birds from the outer beaches to care.

Leave a Reply