Update, 3/6/14: Every so often, the “sweaters on oiled penguins” story resurfaces in the media. “Does this work?” invariably we’re asked about using knit sweaters to keep birds warm and to prevent the preening of oiled feathers. Here’s our answer from International Bird Rescue executive director Jay Holcomb in 2011, following the Rena Oil Spill in New Zealand that affected Little Blue Penguins. The bottom line: While cute, penguin sweaters may do more harm than good to oiled birds.
Many of you have probably seen articles about using specially fitted sweaters made specifically for oiled penguins. This concept has come to the forefront again because of the large number of Little Blue Penguins that have been oiled in the Rena spill in New Zealand. International Bird Rescue has worked on a number of spills with four species of penguins. Each time someone asks us why we are not putting sweaters on penguins. The answer is the same for any bird, but let’s focus on penguins right now.
The intent of the sweaters is to keep the birds warm and reduce the amount of oil that they might ingest when preening. When birds are oiled, they lose their natural ability to thermoregulate. That’s because the oil sticks birds’ down and contour feathers together, temporarily impairing the ability to use these feathers to maintain body temperature.
Additionally, there are many different types of oil, and many contain irritating and toxic components. It’s common to see skin burns and irritation on birds that have heavy oil on their feathers. The last thing we want to do is to put something over their feathers that causes the oil to be pressed against their skin, or impairs the evaporation of the aromatics put off by the oil. Penguins and other birds can also overheat very quickly, and the sweaters increase this risk.
To help the birds stay warm and limit the amount of preening, we only have to do one thing — house birds in a warm, ventilated area. When birds are warm, they reduce their preening because they’re comfortable. When they’re cold, they’re stimulated to preen in an attempt to correct the loss of body heat. Our research and experience over the course of hundreds of spills has shown us that when we keep them warm while they are still oiled, birds do well.
There’s also another hazard to the sweater concept: Any handling or wearing of anything foreign to them contributes to the penguins’ stress. Reducing stress is our biggest challenge in an oil spill. Sweaters can be cumbersome, and require a secure fit to ensure that the bird will not become entangled. When birds are kept in warm rooms without sweaters, their stress is reduced, because they do not need to be monitored or handled.
In the Treasure oil spill in 2000 in Cape Town, South Africa, International Bird Rescue worked with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to rehabilitate over 20,000 oiled African Penguins; we successfully released 95% of them. In every oil spill where we have cared for penguins, International Bird Rescue has had at least an 80% release rate, and none of these birds wore sweaters.
Our colleagues from around the world agree that penguin sweaters are adorable and offer an avenue for concerned people to contribute, but they are not considered a useful tool for the rehabilitation of oiled birds, primarily penguins.
International Bird Rescue
Photo right: One of the penguins being cared for at the wildlife rehabilitation facility set up at Tauranga. Image credit: Maritime New Zealand