Saving Birds from Oil Spills

Some sources insist that most birds affected by an oil spill will die prematurely, even if they’ve been carefully cleaned. Two experts weigh in on why the effort of treating oiled animals is still worthwhile.

Published November 8, 2016

Little induces human self-reproach like seeing hapless birds and other marine life dripping with a thick sheath of black oil after a spill. Yet there’s a glimmer of hope: just watch a Dawn dish soap commercial and be buoyed by the promise that the birds will be gently scrubbed clean and released by loving hands to waddle back off into the wild. As Andrew Nikiforuk reported recently in the Hakai Magazine article “The Oil Spill Cleanup Illusion,” this vision is a product of “response theatre,” a flurry of post-spill action that creates a false sense of resolution to an impossibly messy, and lethal, problem. One biologist he references suggests that only one percent of birds affected by a spill survive after treatment. With such dire prospects, is there still good reason to try to clean oiled birds? And as fuel production continues unabated across the globe, is there really any hope for ocean-going birds? Two experts from the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis)—veteran wildlife rehabilitator Curt Clumpner and wildlife veterinarian Christine Fiorello—share their thoughts*:

Why are you committed to cleaning birds, even though it’s largely—shockingly—ineffective?

Curt Clumpner: I believe that animals’ lives matter and that they should be acknowledged and that if we do something—if we’re responsible for them becoming oiled—we have a responsibility to try and act. In some cases, that may be euthanizing them as painlessly as possible. In other cases, if we feel we can effectively clean and rehabilitate them and put them back out into the wild with a reasonable chance of survival, I believe we should do that.

I have seen these sorts of oil-spill response events change people’s ideas about the environment and the animal world in general. People who have an experience where they see an affected animal—and particularly if they’re able to help that animal, like clean it and release it—become much more committed to the environment. In many situations with young volunteers all over the world, it’s changed their perspective on what they want to do with their lives and how they want to make a difference. And I do feel like we are constantly improving what we’re doing: we’re gaining a better understanding of the impacts of oil on wildlife and some of the things that we can do to mitigate them.

Christine Fiorello: One of the reasons we clean birds is that even if we really suck at it initially, we get better. With African penguins, a few decades ago success rates were around 65 percent, and now they’re up around 90 percent. If we don’t ever do it, we’ll never get better at it. The other thing is that by doing it, we’re documenting very clearly what the harm was to these birds. After we have cleaned all those birds and documented all this information, then the state can go to whoever spilled the oil and say, “we have evidence that all these birds were injured by what you did and now you have to pay us X amount of money so we can try to restore our habitat.” That’s really a huge environmental benefit that we get that’s independent of whether the birds survive or not. I’m not at all saying we should do this even if the birds aren’t going to survive, but people will often argue, “it costs this much to clean the birds and it’s so expensive that it’s not worth it; why don’t we put that money toward habitat protection?” In fact, we wouldn’t get any money for habitat conservation if we didn’t go through the process.

One of the other issues we get into a lot of discussion about is that people often ask, “when you clean these birds, do they survive and go on to reproduce?” If they don’t, the response is always, “well, that was a waste of time.” But how long do they have to survive before you say that was a success? These animals live a hard life and you can’t just expect them to live for 20 more years after you release them. They’re going to be subjected to all of the other problems they might have out there in the wild.


Curt Clumpner catches an oiled pelican following a spill off San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos in 2001. Photo by Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo


You mentioned African penguins; they’re often held up as the poster child for oiled wildlife rehabilitation, with thousands of them saved after the MV Treasure spill off South Africa in 2000. Compare that to the MV Prestige spill in Spain, for example, which killed tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of guillemots, razorbills, puffins, and others. Are penguins somehow better suited to treatment after a spill?

Fiorello: Penguins are the rock stars of oil spills because they tend to do very, very well after cleaning and rehabilitation—with breeding, with normal behavior, and all of that. There’s even a publication showing that had African penguins not been rescued, cleaned, rehabilitated, and released after several of these bigger oil spills that we’ve had in the last two decades, their population would now be 19 percent smaller than it is. And that means a lot considering they’re an endangered species.

Clumpner​: Because penguins are flipper-banded as opposed to leg-banded, it makes them much easier to find, so there’s much better data in terms of post-release. With most other species, radio telemetry is pretty much the most effective way to track them, but it can be very expensive, so there isn’t much data on animals besides penguins.

Penguins also are much heartier. In their normal yearly cycle, they molt on shore and fast during that time. They’re much better adapted to being out of water and without food for a fairly long period. If they are already molting on land when a spill occurs, they are unlikely to be oiled. Most of the spills that we have documented occurred near colonies with birds in relatively good shape. With some waterfowl—ducks and Canada geese, for example—you can get very high survivability again because they’re animals that evolved to live on land and are much easier to manage in captivity. There probably are few other species that you’re going to get the same sort of survivability from.

Fiorello: A paper came out not too long ago showing that gulls that get lightly oiled can actually clean themselves, so they do go on to survive and seem fine. And then there’s also a paper from our group from well before I was here showing that oiled Western gulls that were rehabilitated had a 100 percent survival rate in the five to six months following a spill. So there are definitely other birds that can do well besides penguins.


So if a bird’s chance of surviving after treatment is closely correlated with how much time it spends outside of water, what does that mean for seabirds?

Clumpner: The animals that are in the water most of the time are more challenging because we know less about them and they develop captivity-related problems when you try to keep them in a cage. That’s one of the improvements that we’ve developed over the years: pens that are a bit easier on their feet and on their feathers.

Fiorello: Seabirds will always be a challenge. They’re very susceptible to all of the pathogens that we have here in the terrestrial environment because they live on the ocean and aren’t exposed to all the organisms here on land. When they’re exposed to them, they have no immunity—not only no individual immunity, but no evolutionary immunity or experience with those pathogens—and that’s why they can succumb very rapidly. They also tend to be sensitive birds in the stress sense, not able to handle everything that we put them through. So we have to be very careful about how much stress we’re subjecting them to as we go through the rehabilitation process. And because they spend so much time in the water, they have to have perfect waterproofing when they are released, which is maybe not the case for a pelican or a gull that can actually get out of the water and bask in the sun for a little while. Feathers are like a drysuit; if you’re diving in frigid water with a drysuit and it has even a small leak, you are going to get very cold very quickly. It can take anywhere from days to a couple of weeks for a bird to completely restore waterproofing, and much of that depends on the bird’s ability to preen—if it’s weak and doesn’t preen very much, it will take a lot longer. And the longer they are in captivity, the more likely they are to develop problems.


Christine Fiorello (right) carefully cleans a brown pelican at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center in San Pedro, California, with assistance from Lisa Robinson. Photo by Joe Proudman, UC Davis


Aside from the bird’s own resilience, are there other factors that significantly impact how successful a post-spill wildlife response will be?

Clumpner: During the 1998 spill in Germany that Andrew [Nikiforuk] talked about, the Pallas spill [which affected approximately 20,000 birds], I was part of a team of three from International Bird Rescue that the International Fund for Animal Welfare brought in to help. I think it’s changed a bit, but in Germany at the time there was no organized wildlife response. It was simply NGOs and a number of volunteers from the Netherlands and some local individuals who didn’t want to see the animals shot, because that was the official response—they would organize hunters to go out and shoot the animals on the beaches as opposed to trying to clean them. I don’t think that, in terms of evaluating whether oiled wildlife rehabilitation can do some good, for either a population or individual animals, that you can fairly evaluate a situation like that or compare it to an organized response where there are pre-identified facilities and equipment in place and trained people on hand who know how to do the work. It’s kind of like the volunteer fire department versus a real fire department; not to say that a volunteer fire department isn’t great and doesn’t, I’m sure, save many lives and many houses, but it’s not the same as if you have a professional fire department standing by that has all of the state-of-the-art equipment and trains every day.

Fiorello: Shortly after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the American Trader spill in the Santa Barbara area in 1990, the California legislature just said, “this is unacceptable.” It’s now legislatively mandated that we protect and rescue and clean oiled wildlife. So they were willing to put money toward it and make it happen and the university was willing to help. There was also already a network and a culture of wildlife rehabilitation in California, which allowed OWCN to slide right in. So that is one of the major things that’s made wildlife rehabilitation very successful in California. We do have a huge state, but we have enough people throughout the state who are already interested and trained that we can respond very quickly. South Africa also has an excellent organization, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, that’s highly trained and ready and very experienced with penguins. Those situations are very unusual.

Clumpner: The OWCN management team in the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis has grown to 11 people now and the OWCN itself is made up of 37 organizations throughout California. The more people that you have who are really focusing on the problems the better. The information OWCN has built up over the past 20 years has been shared throughout the world. Other organizations share information with us as well. Having more information and having relationships so that you know where you can get additional resources if you need them lends to a quicker response. Just as in other medical emergencies, the sooner you can get those animals into care and get the oil off of them—not immediately, but within the first couple of days, because you want to stabilize before you try to clean them—the better off they’ll be and the more likelihood they’ll have of survival and a quicker recovery.


Curt Clumpner holds a pelican as it’s rehydrated following the 2001 spill from the fuel tanker Jessica off San Cristobal Island. Photo by Getty Images


So for California, where you have the infrastructure—including entire facilities designed for treating wildlife after a spill—how do you gauge success after a spill response?

Clumpner: If we have a spill and we have a 60 to 75 percent release rate—and the way we measure that will depend on the species—then we feel like that’s successful. If we have good participation from the community, the community understands what we’re doing, they don’t feel like they’ve been shut out or that there were attempts to hide anything, we feel like that’s successful.

One of the big challenges, particularly with seabirds, is that we’re not yet able to capture alive a large percentage of the animals in most cases. If you have an inland spill, where it’s a number of geese or waterfowl around a lake, then a lot of times you can capture a very high percentage of affected birds. But with many of the marine spills, if you can capture 10 percent of them, that’s doing pretty well. So that’s one place I think we still have a lot of work to do, developing techniques to collect more of those animals. Again, some of that is just getting out there very, very quickly. Even with the network that we have in California, usually it will be 8 to 24 hours before we can really have a number of people on site to be able to go out and start capturing animals. The Refugio spill [in May 2015, from an underground pipe in Santa Barbara] was pretty successful in terms of what we felt like we accomplished.

Fiorello: After the Refugio spill we tagged 12 oiled pelicans that were cleaned and rehabilitated and eight unoiled control pelicans, and we’ve been following them for a year. So that’s been really exciting to see how they do. What we’ve learned so far is that, first of all, all of our birds—controls and rehabilitated birds—survived for three full months. Most of them survived a few more months beyond that, and now, at more than one year out, we have three birds still transmitting; one bird that periodically transmits, so it appears to be alive but its radio is not working very well; and another bird that’s been spotted alive in the last couple of months even though its radio is not transmitting. So we have a minimum of four oiled birds, possibly five, that are still alive a year later, which is a really significant amount of time for a bird with a lifespan of maybe 15 to 20 years. I think part of what this reflects is that we’re getting better at rehabilitation. We’re learning as we go. We’re doing better, and more birds are surviving.


Christine Fiorello secures a satellite tracker to a pelican rescued after the 2015 Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Photo by Justin Cox, UC Davis


I understand that responders typically clean birds with dish soap and administer antibiotics, and that they may feed the animals charcoal, to reduce their oil absorption, and products such as Pepto-Bismol, to coat their gastrointestinal systems. Aside from improving the pen design and reducing stress, is there any room for improvement at the actual treatment stage?

Clumpner: For the most part, the cleaning methods have not changed a whole lot over at least the last 25 years. We still use dishwashing detergent, primarily Dawn because it’s a little better, but most are fairly close. And sometimes you have to use a pre-treating agent to soften very hard, viscous, or weathered oils.

What has changed is that we’re learning more and more about how to evaluate animal health. We take blood and look at packed cell volume, total solids, and other physiological parameters to help evaluate how strong animals are when they come in, so we’re sure they can withstand the wash, and what their condition is when we think they’re ready for release. We also look at waterproofing. Depending on the species, that may be evaluated in different ways. A bird that’s on the water all the time will have much different waterproofing than a songbird or an eagle, for example. And we look at behavior within a captive situation, which can obviously be quite a bit different than behavior in a normal situation. We try to look at all those things to get clues about how strong the animal is. And then we try to tie that in with post-release studies. So we’re gathering more data when they’re in care and then following them after they’ve been released to try and determine predictors of survivability or breeding post-release.

A big point of discussion in terms of how valuable cleaning birds has been is whether or not they breed afterward and are able to efficiently reproduce. With the penguins, there’s evidence that animals can successfully reproduce again, though generally not at the same level. Different studies have found different things, but I think that pretty much everyone agrees that there’s some impact of oiling—no one in rehabilitation claims that the animals are exactly as they would be if they had not been oiled.

Fiorello: Prevention of fungal pneumonia is a key component of treatment. I’m working with avian pharmacologist and veterinarian Dr. Lisa Tell on a project that she started several years ago. It’s a way of delivering an anti-fungal drug directly into the lungs and the airways of a bird instead of giving them an oral medication while they’re in captivity. What we’re hoping is that, with this novel method, we can administer the drug into the trachea and not have to administer it again for several days. So instead of handling the birds twice a day to give them a pill, we can handle them once every four or five days and just give them a little spray down their trachea. We’ve had some challenges with getting the drug to distribute properly, but we’re working with a group of engineers and we’re confident we will figure it out. In some of the preliminary results the drug has persisted in the tissues where we want it. This method of delivery allows us to get the drug exactly where it is needed, and allows us to safely use a drug that likely would have serious side effects if given intravenously every day. It’s almost impossible to maintain an intravenous line in a bird because they have such thin skin and they’re wild and they’re flapping around—they’ll just knock it out. So this allows us to use a drug that we normally wouldn’t be able to use in a bird because we’re using it in this novel delivery method.


Is there anything else that can be done to improve how wildlife fares in the event of a spill?

Clumpner: The short answer is that if a spill occurs, being prepared with a wildlife response plan that includes trained people, appropriate equipment, and pre-identified places to work will optimize survival. Continued research and evaluation of what we do in each spill are key to improving our understanding and techniques.

Certainly there’s been a huge improvement—if you look at the statistics, there are fewer tanker spills and things like that—but as long as we’re transporting oil, there are likely to be spills. The more that we can do to be prepared for those, while also trying to prevent them as much as possible, the better off we’re going to be. It’s important for people to be cognizant of the costs of whatever we’re using for transportation or for heating our homes. Nothing in life is free—there are always costs.

Fiorello: It’s not easy and we’re not going to save every animal. I don’t think anyone would claim that that could even be our goal, but I think a huge part of this is prevention; prevention has to be first and then response is really secondary. California was one of the first places to mandate double-hulled vessels on the ocean. We don’t want to have to respond; we want to just not have spills. The Santa Barbara spill that happened last year was from really old, poorly maintained pipelines. So that’s easily fixed, right? It’s not brain surgery to figure that out. It’s not something weird that happened or a fluke, it’s that things got old and weren’t properly maintained and they broke. So starting out with that idea that we’re going to do everything we can up front to prevent them is much better than putting a bunch of money into response and just letting spills happen. From the industry point of view, cleaning birds is a lot sexier than saying “look how great we are, we’re inspecting pipelines every year,” or whatever the recommended interval is. They can’t put that on the news. But that’s probably the most important thing we can do besides reducing our dependency on oil.

* Comments have been condensed and edited.