Update on Gulf Coast Wildlife Efforts: How to Clean an Oiled Pelican

7 years ago

We've all cringed from images of oil-soaked fish, turtles and pelicans struggling in BP's oil -- and those are just the animals we can see. Over 67 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline (spanning four states) are directly affected by this disaster. Approximately 78,000 square miles (the size of Nebraska) is closed to fishing and thousands of beings -- sperm whale to plankton -- are in danger. Despite heroic efforts, wildlife such as sea birds, dolphins, shrimp, oysters and Bluefin tuna may never be the same.

The day after Obama's I'm-really-pissed-now speech to the nation, government estimates put the unstoppable crude spew at 35,000-60,000 barrels A DAY. Estimates also say that as much as 116,000,000 gallons has already gone into the Gulf of Mexico. (One barrel of oil equals 42 U.S. gallons.)

While BP has begrudgingly agreed to a restitution account for those affected by the disaster, dolphins and brown pelicans do not -- at last check -- keep bank accounts.


The birds most affected by the spill include Louisiana's state bird, the brown pelican, which only came off the endangered species list in November of last year. There are approximately 100,000 brown pelicans in the state -- a number that will surely decline in the days ahead. Other affected birds include laughing gulls, egrets and herons. (There is pointed concern about the reddish egret, which faced declining numbers before the spill.)

As of today, 783 dead oiled birds had been collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Also, 353 endangered sea turtles and 41 dolphins/sea mammals.) By comparison, 11,000 dead oiled birds were collected in Prince William Sound in the same time period following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. (Ultimately, that number would climb to 35,000.) But don't let these low casualty numbers fool you; the majority of Gulf birds and mammals exposed to oil will simply fly off or swim away and die quietly in the remote marshes of Louisiana rather than conveniently wash ashore as they did in Alaska.

Meanwhile, there's been some heated debate among wildlife experts on whether all the cleaning and rehabilitation of wildlife does any good. Some scientists have been quoted as saying that oiled birds should be left alone or euthanized. Treehugger's Brian Merchant wrote an excellent pro/con piece on this issue here and, as you might imagine, the plea to stand aside and let the birds die is not popular among animal lovers.

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

--Ornithologist Brian Sharp, on NPR

Furthermore, in their harried efforts to help, many of the clean-up crews have reportedly been seen mistakenly trampling pelican nests. Then there's the toxic dispersants used to break up the oil, which have not helped the wildlife at all, only making it easier for them to ingest the oil.

So where's the good news in all this?

Your tax dollars at work: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have 472 personnel responding to the spill, four helicopters flying wildlife recovery missions and 48 vessels helping with reconnaissance in Houma, LA. They are also working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and BP to remove soiled booms from rookeries. In short, they are working their little khaki-wearing tails off.

"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."

--Jay Holcomb, Executive Director, International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) in his public message on the debate

Then there are the countless non-federal organizations working round the clock to catch, clean and rehabilitate as much wildlife as they can get their hands on. To get an idea of the process, here are steps in for cleaning, rehabilitating and releasing oiled birds according to the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC).

All wild animals stress out under sudden captivity and a 48-hour stabilization window is mandatory for oiled birds. No feathered friend will endure the dreaded washing ordeal -- which happens only once -- until certain stabilized criteria is met: appropriate medical treatments, weight gain, healthy blood values and normal behavior. During this two-day span, certain tasks are performed to help both man and fowl, namely:

  • The bird species is identified and fitted with a leg band to track through recovery and release.
  • As assessment is made of the bird's overall health and level of oil damage, including toxic ingestion and related exhaustion/starvation.
  • Food is administered in the form of a rehydration solution via a stomach tube. The solution absorbs digested oil and flushes out the birds' system, which usually takes about four hours for a pelican.
  • Each bird is housed according to their species specific needs and date of capture. An oiled bird is unable to regulate its internal body temperature, so it is stabilized in a warm environment and monitored closely for signs of hypo- and hyperthermia.
  • The birds are not restrained or prevented from otherwise moving normally and placed in pens that minimize additional damage to their feathers and body.

"We don't name them because we really want to keep the mind set that they are wild animals, not pets."

--Heather Nevill, veterinarian and Gulf wildlife rescue worker

Washing often takes up to four people per bird:

  • The birds are initially sprayed with warm canola oil to loosen the muck and then cleaned with equal parts water and dishwashing detergent - many favor Dawn. (Never to miss a marketing opportunity, there's a Dawn-sponsored 'Everyday Wildlife Champions' Facebook page.)
  • Person #1 holds the legs folded under the bird's body and holds wings in or out, as needed.
  • Person #2 keeps the tub filled with 103-degree water and the proper ratio of water/soap. Dirty birds often need several tubs per cleaning.
  • Person #3 cleans the head and pouch with toothbrushes, sponges and cloths on sticks. (They also keep a finger on the beak to prevent overheating and keep the eyes soap-free.)
  • Person #4 is constantly rinsing the bird, which is vital since soap can damage a bird's feathers just as much as oil.

Drying: Birds are then brought to a drying room, where padded pens offer some comfort. There are floor-mounted air dryers for large birds and warming lights for smaller, wading birds.

Rehab: To recuperate, the birds are then brought to an outdoor aviary with a pool and small fish for snacks. Every three days, blood samples are taken to make sure the bird has recovered and that its natural waterproofing capabilities are back to normal.

Release: After a final assessment of the bird's health, it receives a final ID tag and taken to the Louis Armstrong International Airport where it is flown (along with a few other birds) to areas such as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, far from the soiled areas.

When the birds finally fly off, I like to think there are people yelling, thinking or praying, "Good luck! Sorry about all the oily drama!" or something like that. Maybe even some misty eyes.

On behalf all the humans who are not there, I'd like to express my deep gratitude to all the employees and volunteers donating their time and effort to assist wildlife in the massive clean-up effort. I will be on the Gulf Coast in July checking out the scene for myself, looking forward and dreading it at the same time.

An oiled pelican swims beneath a fountain at a bird rehabilitation center in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, May 30, 2010. Pelicans, the state bird of Louisiana, are being cleaned and sent to Florida because their home waters in the Gulf of Mexico are being fouled by the giant BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. UPI/A.J. Sisco.. Photo via Newscom


For more personal accounts of dealing with wildlife rescue from this disaster, check out some of these blogs:

Oiled Wildlife Care Network Blog run by the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. They've got a great gang of folks down there helping out and tracking their progress:

"Turtles collected (as of 1200 14 Jun): 88 total live turtles (50 oiled); 333 total dead turtles (7 oiled)

Dolphins collected (as of 1200 14 Jun): 41 total dead dolphins (2 oiled)

Status of necropsies: 75 turtles and 14 dolphins done to date – no oil noted in or on any turtle evaluated, oil on 2 dolphins."

Rebecca Dmytryk is the Project Director for Wild Rescue. She and her husband, Duane, are doing everything they can:

"The oil on the birds is difficult to remove from their feathers. A solvent-like product called methyl soyate is massaged through the feathers making the oil easier to wash off. The birds are then sprayed with a mixture of Dawn and water, soaked and scrubbed in multiple vats of soapy water, and finally they are rinsed dry."

On behalf of the American Birding Association, Conservation Coordinator Drew Whelan blogs at Gulf Coast Oil Spill, specifically focusing on the bird populations being affected by the spill and how to save them.

"While on the water, we saw many oiled birds. As we perused one of the Pelican breeding colonies we saw many oiled individuals, but recovering oiled birds from colonies in full swing of nesting and fledging young is a highly complicated issue to say the least. Often for the the health of the colony as a whole, wildlife rescuers here are forced to make the decision to leave oiled birds behind in fears that attempts to rescue them might cause more mortality than would be saved."

Other sources:

Report oiled wildlife: 866-557-1401

International Bird Rescue Research Center

Deepwater Horizon Response

The Times-Picayune. Sometimes, the hometown paper knows more than all the international news sources combined. Chris Kirkham has been doing an exceptional job in covering the wildlife issue.

As always, the Boston Globe kicks everyone's ass when it comes to news photo essays. No exception here.

BlogHer Contributing Editor Deb on the Rocks, who lives in Florida, rounds up bloggers telling compelling oil spill stories.

And this just in ...iPhone users who come upon oiled birds and other wildlife in the Gulf Coast region can immediately transmit the location and a photo to animal rescue networks using a free new app, MoGO, for Mobile Gulf Observatory, was developed by four University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers to make it easier for the public to help save wildlife exposed to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz

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