Gulf Spill: Reminder About Post Release Survival of Rehabilitated Oiled Birds

Cleaned of oil at the 2010 Deepwater Horizon well blow out, rescued Brown and White Pelicans await release.

From Jay Holcomb, IBRRC’s Executive Director:

Hi everyone. We are very busy here in Louisiana at the gulf oil spill, but doing well. We are washing the very oiled pelicans and other birds that you have seen on TV and most of them are doing very well. More on that aspect of our work later. I want to address a few issues that have come up in the media recently. First of all, let me say that this is the time during an oil spill that the skeptics come out. These “experts” are quoted and their opinions, no matter how ill researched or biased they are, become controversial and newsworthy. I spent much time during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, 21 years ago, and in every other oil spill since then addressing them and I now just consider this a part of the politics of an oil spill.

“I am writing from personal experience, as a veteran of more than 200 oil spills, and as a representative of one of the foremost oiled bird rescue and research organizations in the world.” Jay Holcomb, Executive Director of International Bird Rescue Research Center

For those who are concerned about the survival rates of oiled birds, based on recent news coverage (or the outdated studies they cite), I’d like to address the topic head-on. I am writing from personal experience, as a veteran of more than 200 oil spills, and as a representative of one of the foremost oiled bird rescue and research organizations in the world. IBRRC and Tri-State Bird Rescue–who is leading the Gulf response effort–host a bi-annual conference on the Effects of Oil on Wildlife, and, as such, are well versed in the latest science. The “experts” that I am referring to rarely, if ever, attend this global forum for oiled wildlife professionals, nor do they attempt to learn about advancements and successes in oiled wildlife rehabilitation.

How well do birds survive in the wild when they have been oiled and rehabilitated?

Jay Holcomb, past Bird Rescue Executive Director, teams up to wash an oiled Brown Pelican in Venice, Louisiana at the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill response.

Recent studies (a few of which are listed below) indicate that birds can be successfully rehabilitated and returned to the wild, where many survive for years and breed.

The papers cited by opponents of oiled bird rehabilitation—like Oregon’s biologist Brian Sharp’s infamous 1996 report “Post Release Survival of Oiled, Cleaned Seabirds in North America” Ibis. Vol. 138:222-228—tend to rely on anecdotal band returns (meaning there is no daily tracking method for individuals released and no control groups observed.) These surveys are misleading because they fail to consider some important variables: the protocols used to care for the birds in question, the experience of the organization caring for the oiled birds and basic things like how the bird’s health and water proofing were assessed prior to release.

Simply put, one would not lump together the survival rates of human patients receiving emergency trauma care between two hospitals like Mogadishu’s Madina Hospital and New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Yet surveys like Sharp’s do just that, they lump together released birds treated at various centers, under different conditions, with different resources and experience levels.

Studies support oiled, properly treated sea birds

A growing number of studies using radio telemetry, satellite tracking and long-term breeding colony observations are more accurately illustrating the post oiling survival of sea birds:

Wolfaardt, A.C. and D.C. Nel. 2003, Breeding Productivity and Annual cycle of Rehabilitated African Penguin Following Oiling. Rehabilitation of oiled African Penguins: A Conservation Success Story.

Newman, S.H., Golightly, R.T., H.R. Carter, E.N. Craig, and J.K. Mazet 2001, Post-Release Survival of Common Murres (Uria aalge) Following the Stuyvesant Oil Spill.

Golightly. R.T., S.H. Newman, E.N. Craig, H.R. Carter and J.K. Mazet. 2002, Survival and Behavior of Western Gulls Following Exposure to Oil and Rehabilitation.

Anderson, D.W., F. Gress, and D.M. Fry 1996, Survival and dispersal of oiled Brown Pelicans after rehabilitation and release.

These studies indicate that many seabirds do survive the oiling and rehabilitation process successfully returning to their wild condition. And in some cases (when birds are located and observed in breeding colonies) have been shown to breed successfully for many years following their oiling, rehabilitation and release. These studies show that a bird’s survival is often based on how a specific species can cope with the stress of the entire process from oiling to rehabilitation, and that their overall survivorship across species is far greater than Sharp’s assertions. As survivorship may be correlated to individual species it is irresponsible to draw conclusions of survivability from one species to another, rather, in depth studies must be conducted for each species considered if we are to begin to answer this question with any measure of reliability.

Rehabilitated Brown Pelicans were released after care at the 1990 American Trader oil spill in Huntington Beach, CA. Photo by International Bird Rescue

Pelicans handle stress better than most birds

In regards to pelicans specifically, IBRRC works year-round with brown pelicans at our two rescue centers in California, treating, on average, 500 injured, sick and oiled pelicans every year. Our release rate on these animals is 80% or higher for general rehabilitation. Pelicans, like penguins, can tolerate the stress of rehabilitation much better than birds like loons and murres for example. All of our birds (including pelicans) are federally tagged upon release. Sightings and band recoveries indicate that a high percentage of them survive. One recent example was a brown pelican, oiled and rehabilitated, during the American Trader spill in 1990 in Southern California. This bird was sighted still alive in Newport Beach earlier this year, 20 years on, and is considered one of the oldest brown pelicans ever recorded.

While this is just one bird it is a good example of the type of band returns we see from oiled and non-oiled pelicans. Of course it’s important to also remember that it is these individual birds that make up populations. At the ‘New Carissa’ oil spill in Oregon in 1999, the snowy plover population in Coos Bay was 30-45 birds. We captured 31 and rehabilitated all of them. They are an intensely studied bird and each one is considered valuable to the species. Studies of the birds showed that there was no difference in the mortality of these previously oiled birds to those never oiled.

What gives IBRRC, and Tri-State Bird Rescue, the best chance to make a difference to threatened species during oil spills is the year-round dedication to saving individual lives that has been at the heart of our mission for nearly 40 years. This approach has helped us to develop teams of trained animal care and oiled wildlife professionals that understand the intricacies of this specific field of rehabilitation and continually strive to improve our techniques as well as build a more comprehensive scientific picture of our work over time.

30 thoughts on “Gulf Spill: Reminder About Post Release Survival of Rehabilitated Oiled Birds”

  1. Thanks for the great work and taking time to make this post. I couldn't understand when a head of the WWF said that she agreed with the studies and agreed that the best thing is to let the birds die.

    I know a little kid that instead of Christmas presents she just asked you to donate to the WWF. And some people did that. Is that the kind of thinking we're funding.

  2. Thank you for all of your caring work and for this very uplifting and informative piece. To hear that an oiled pelican was cleaned and has survived twenty years soothes my soul a bit. I was in Grand Isle this week and sent my best wishes to every oiled pelican that I saw flying above me. You have given me reason to hope that many of them can survive this mess.

  3. One thing I've been wondering is what are the chances of birds coming back to their original breeding grounds and being re-oiled? Do you ever see that happen?

    Thank you for all your hard work, as well as those of the volunteers.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I hate to see wrong information thwart support of your rescue efforts. I don't see how anyone could suggest that we don't at least TRY to do all we can. Even one bird saved is worth the effort. By the way, we made those "Love a Pelican" t-shirts 🙂 if anyone is interested – All profits go toward oil spill rescue efforts.

  5. The oiled bird situation has made me sick especially after seeing the photos posted by the media. The only thing that has helped me maintain my sanity is seeing the great work your organization has done to save those birds who would have died without your help. Although you say BP is covering the cost of the rehabilitation, I have donated to your organization anyway. You deserve all the credit and commendation coming to you.
    Well done and many thanks from all the bird lovers everywhere!

  6. Thanks Jay, this is great to see following all the doom and gloom "just euthanize them" coverage. Hope this and the post by Nils and Mike in the OWCN blog does something to dispel ignorance…

  7. thankyou so much for your thoughts and info. It gave me some much needed hope for those beloved Pelicans. I have never believed that we should euthanize them. Better part of valor is to try to save as many as can be saved. Each gene pool is essential for the diversity of any given species.
    I'm sharing your message on forums, for those who are so saddened from this disaster, they need to keep hope that these birds stand a good chance of surviving.

  8. We hope not! But It happens from time to time, not in large numbers that we've seen.

    Each bird has Federal Silver band on its leg to ID its release. So we and other in the wildlife management services can track them.

  9. It is helpful to remember that the job of media is often to raise emotional tension in people or to feed what is already there… I've learned from this situation in the Gulf to look for the quiet people who do good work and are hands on and experienced in working with the events in real time. That way, I bypass a lot of the blame, shame and judgment games that go on between the media and the legal teams and the government agencies looking for reactionary participation via the public. Human hearts, well designed technology and hands on work are where I choose to shine the spotlight. Thank you for your straight forward and down to earth post, letting us know our winged cousins are benefiting from your expertise and how we can support your work with them.
    Blessings! The Sacred Beauty Project

  10. It's such good news to hear the Brown Pelicans have a high survival rate especially with the amount of stress they go through at a time like this. If you could write a post or update on if there is a high risk now of baby pelicans starving to death due to death or capture for cleanup of oil soaked parents. Does wildlife officials search for orphaned baby pelicans during these times of crisis?

  11. Thank you so much for taking the time to post this news!! I know a lot of people that will be happy to hear this!

  12. The American Birding Association Blog says that you have been forced to leave the Gulf Spill. What happened? Will you go back?

  13. I am glad to see the "real" information on cleaned birds survival rates from a source (IBRRC),that knows first-hand. The media has a lot of jokers that just want to sell a story.

    Thank you Jay, for setting the record straight. Keep up the wonderful work that you and the rest of the staff there are doing!

  14. Please! Tell us more! What is the political situation that is keeping our best team out of it?

    You have hundreds maybe thousands of people reading. Let us know what we can do to make the situation better so you can get back in there!

  15. From Jay Holcomb, Exec Director, IBRRC:

    Thank you for your comments and concerns about IBRRC’s involvement in the gulf spill. I wanted to address some of the misunderstandings regarding our ongoing work in the Gulf. First, I wanted to reassure everyone that IBRRC is very much still involved and currently has a 30-plus team on the ground as we continue to partner with Tri-State Bird Rescue to manage the Oiled Bird Rehabilitation Centers in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. We also continue to have reconnaissance and recovery (capture) teams working in the field in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

    We no longer have personnel working in the search and rescue program in Louisiana. The reconnaissance and recovery effort (capture program) in LA is being managed by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. When we started receiving many oil birds, about a week ago, we redirected our remaining capture personnel working in the field in Louisiana because we felt at that time that they could be better utilized in the oiled bird rehabilitation center in Fort Jackson, LA and in supporting capture efforts in Alabama, Mississippi & Florida. We have received over 350 oiled birds during the last week.

    The US Fish & Wildlife Service has since asked that we submit a streamline version of IBRRC’s capture protocols that we typically follow and uses for training staff. These guidelines are being reviewed and are expected to become part of a hand-out for Service and State employees going into the field to capture oiled birds. In short, the protocols address proactive capture strategies, using traps or nets when needed, as well as the difference between capturing oiled wildlife and healthy wild animals who are sometimes captured for management or population studies.

    We remain committed to providing our services and expertise in this spill and will be here for as long as we are needed.

    Thanks, Jay

  16. Great work and thank you for keeping us all informed…

    BP could have prevented this by purchasing and installing a device called an acoustic trigger. Cost approx. 500,000. NOW look at the cost involved! It will take millions more, perhaps billions to remedy…and the cost to the environment? All the money in the world cannot bring back the life of all those animals that have suffered and died.

    WRITE to the President and tell him to hold BP accountable for Criminal negligence and to CHANGE our dependency on oil to a greener, safer energy.

    The White House
    1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
    Washington, DC 20500
    (at bottom of envelope front, write:)

  17. Thanks for the update, Jay. I was concerned to learn about "IBRRC pulling out of Louisiana." Sounds like your team is still out there, helping out in areas where your expertise is needed. Hope the training of the USFWS & local Louisiana wildlife personnel goes well. The more people we have on the ground, bringing the wildlife in for treatment, the more hope I have for the animals. Thank you also, for offering a reliable source of information. I am greatly concerned about efforts to cover up the true numbers of oiled and dead wildlife resulting from this spill.

  18. Congratulations on the job IBRRC. Unfortunately there are professionals in the environmental area that make use of media to promote itself with scientific data totally false. I work in CRAM, which is located in BRAZIL, and has links with the IBRRC and know well the serious work that these centers do. I think we have a moral obligation to intervene, since it is done properly, under the strict supervision of veterinarians and biologists. As a result, IBRRC is a great center that provides all the conditions to respond to emergencies such as those caused in the Gulf of Mexico.

  19. I am only 12 years old, and last night my parents were watching the news. I was sickened as my dad explained to me the severity of the oil spill and the condition of the poor animals there. When I did the calculations of how much oil had already spilled and my dad told me that it probably won't stop for many more days, I felt hopeless.

    However, it gives me new hope knowing that people like you are out there cleaning and saving these animals, and that other people are donating $ as well to the cause. Thank you!

    Now I have resolved to help in any way I can and even though it probably won't be much, I will donate soon.


    I'm glad that there are voices out there speaking the truth, and that many of these voices are taking an active role in the rehab process even when many of us find ourselves unable to make the trip down south.

    Keep up the good work! You folks deserve so much more recognition. Thank you!

  21. re: 'waiting game' comment on cnn interview

    Preventing Exposure
    Various techniques can be used to disperse uncontaminated animals from a problem area or to concentrate and hold them in clean areas. Efforts to discourage unoiled birds from contaminated areas must be done early in the spill; these can i quote nclude scare devices such as propane exploders and cracker shells, hazing with motorized equipment, or relocation through baiting at an alternative feeding area. No attempt should be made to disperse oiled birds since this can lead to introduction of oiled animals into uncontaminated populations.
    For priority species, unoiled animals can be relocated through capture in cannon nets, drop nets, rocket nets, and swim-in or walk-in traps, and rapidly transported to “safe” areas.

  22. Thank you, Jay! Are you aware of any radio or satellite telemetry being employed on the cleaned Gulf birds, to monitor post-release survival? Thanks for all of your efforts, Stacy Small

  23. Itˇs in point of fact a nice and helpful piece of info. I am happy that you shared this helpful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

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