Strong Evidence Supports Survival of Oiled Birds

Ten years after being cleaned of oil, Brown Pelican E80 has been spotted multiple times thriving in the wild. Photo in 2015 by Jean Pichler

Whenever there is an oil spill, like the pipeline leak we were recently activated to respond in Southern California, the question inevitably comes up ‘Why rehabilitate oiled birds? Throughout our history there have been naysayers who question the value of rehabilitating oiled wildlife and their longevity. However, we now have strong data to support the survival of oiled wildlife from decades of band return tracking. Many previously oiled birds go on to live very long lives. Below are a few notable examples.

Longevity of Oiled Birds

Last year we shared a remarkable story about an oiled King Eider we treated back in 1996 that lived to be among the oldest King Eiders ever known, more than 23 years after release.

We recently received several reports of a blue-banded Brown Pelican “E80”. We treated this bird for being oiled back in 2011. E80 came to us from Santa Barbara, oiled by an unknown source. Two of our colleagues, pelican biologist Deborah Jaques and California Wildlife Center’s Marine Program Manager Heather Henderson, have spotted E80 multiple times: in the last five weeks, 10 years, and a couple months after her release in 2011. Enjoy this additional gorgeous image of E80 taken by Jean Pichler in flight in 2015.

During the 2000 Treasure oil spill in Cape Town, South Africa, rescuers cleaned 20,000 oiled, endangered African Penguins, eventually releasing 90 percent of them, and successfully relocated another 19,500 to prevent them from becoming oiled. Research papers have concluded the penguins’ population is 19 percent higher today than it would have been without wildlife rehabilitation in the past four decades.

Saved birds can impact population

Photo oiled Snowy Plover
Oiled Western Snowy Plover recovered from the 2021 Orange County oil spill site awaiting transport. Photo: OWCN/UC Davis

When we rescue an animal, there are ripple effects that go well beyond that individual. Each animal returned to the wild can rejoin the wild population, helping to preserve future generations. This is especially critical with threatened and endangered species like Western Snowy Plovers, where each individual of a small population carries genetic diversity critical to rebuilding a healthy and resilient population. Our work gives them a second chance to move their genetics into the future and contribute to their species’ long-term survival.

We have proof that it is not all doom and gloom for oiled birds. Our veterinarian, Dr. Rebecca Duerr, is currently consolidating much of the information known about the longevity of rehabilitated oiled birds all over the world for a talk at the Clean Gulf conference coming up next month in San Antonio, Texas. We plan to have her reprise her talk as a webinar for our supporters in coming months, so stay tuned!

Brown Pelican E80 reported October 2021. Photo by Deborah Jaques, Pacific Eco-logic