How to Get Better at Saving Oiled Birds? Lots and Lots of Practice

During "oiled bird season" off the coast of California, International Bird Rescue learns to rehabilitate the trickiest patients.

Every year, the oiled birds wash up on California beaches. And every year, International Bird Rescue cleans them and sends them back out. At its Los Angeles Center in San Pedro, manager Kylie Clatterbuck examines Western Grebe B440, freshly arrived on a crisp mid-April afternoon in a cardboard box.

No big, manmade spill has happened. Rather, it’s “oiled bird season,” which occurs fall through early spring as birds migrate through natural seeps, where petroleum leaks from ancient fields under the sea floor two to four miles off the coast. B440 is one of more than 200 birds—grebes and loons mostly—that have found their way here since the beginning of the year, after volunteers rescued them on the beach.

In a Tyvek suit, Clatterbuck works quickly. She takes the bird's temperature and ruffles its oil-stained belly feathers, looking for wounds and broken bones. She checks every inch of its body—from eyelids and gums to wing joints and toes.

“Emaciated,” she murmurs. “Moderately dehydrated.” The bird squawks at an offered piece of smelt, but eats readily. “Bright and alert,” she notes, pleased. In a couple days, B440 will be washed. But for now, the bird will rest.

B440’s chances of surviving are better than they’d have been a decade or two ago. Rescuers have gotten more effective at rehabilitating oiled birds, historically an endeavor fraught with controversy. And much of International Bird Rescue's knowledge—used when its experts deploy to spill emergencies around the world—comes from caring for birds oiled in the natural seeps off California’s coast, which aren’t subject to the same political and regulatory pressures as active spills.

Debates over whether to rehabilitate oiled birds go back years. With each new spill, old arguments recur: that it’s expensive, that limited money might be better spent on restoring habitat, or that it’s good PR for the oil spiller, giving a false impression an ecological disaster can be fixed.

The one that particularly frustrates the organization's executive director J.D. Bergeron, however, is the assertion that oiled bird rehab doesn’t work, as one widely-publicized 1996 study found. Based on banded birds recovered after the Exxon Valdez disaster and others, ornithologist Brian Sharp concluded that most rehabbed oiled birds that are released soon die anyway—better, then, to euthanize them instead. The question—to clean or not to clean?—surfaced again in the news after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

Not helping matters is that long-term, controlled studies that track rehabbed birds from the moment of their release are costly and logistically challenging. Securing permission to do research during active spills is notoriously difficult, as is securing funding. “It makes the quantitative research extremely valuable,” says Richard Golightly, a Humboldt State University biologist who has done tracking studies. “But it comes in bursts.” Biologist Juliet Lamb, for example, spent over a year tracking 12 pelicans oiled by California’s Refugio spill in 2015. Each of her solar-powered GPS trackers cost $3,000, plus a couple hundred dollars a month to rent satellite airtime, she says—all of the birds in her study survived at least three months and traveled long distances, several individuals more than 5,000 kilometers.

Nevertheless, as treatment and data gathering methods improve,  “the tide is turning” on the rehabilitation debate, says Laird Henkel, scientist-supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Most people agree it’s efficacious. Most agree it’s worthwhile.”

Experts also now realize that survival is nuanced—it depends on everything from oil type and weather to the speed of rescue and expertise of the rescuer. It also depends on the bird: Penguins do fabulously, and pelicans, gulls, cormorants, geese and gannets do well. Other birds, however, are tougher: For example, only about 30 percent of Common Murres in treatement make it to being released. 

To International Bird Rescue, which was founded in 1971 and has pioneered many methods now in use, the effective rescue of oiled birds is a matter of practice. “Our little weird circumstance,” says veterinarian and research director Rebecca Duerr, “where we get 100 to 200 oiled birds every year, and continually alter our protocols with what we learn from them, there’s nowhere else in the world that does that.”

They’ve gotten better at pinpointing which birds have a chance at surviving. Duerr, for instance, discovered that murres with less oiling were usually worse off than heavily oiled. Scantily oiled birds lingered in the environment, growing colder and sicker by the second, whereas birds completely caked in oil beach themselves immediately, to avoid drowning. “Everyone’s like, oh, he’s so oiled. Let’s just kill him. But generally, they’re the ones that are not anemic. They’re not starving yet,” Duerr says. “It’s very counterintuitive.”

Also counterintuitive: waiting to wash. No longer do rescuers battle through the night to clean birds, as they did during the Exxon Valdez spill. They let them rest, hydrate, and eat for several days first, rather than stressing them further with washing. To further minimize stress, International Bird Rescue also maximized wash efficiency with high-pressure nozzles, soft water (hard water reacts with soap residue, creating a scum that waterlogs feathers), and, yes, Dawn detergent.

After oil removal comes the “secondary challenges” of keeping wild birds in captivity. Many aquatic birds aren’t designed to be on land. Sitting on hard surfaces creates pressure sores, particularly through keel, hocks, and toes. International Bird Rescue uses swimming pools and pens with flexible walls and mesh net bottoms that are gentler on wings and feet. Protective wraps such as a U-shaped cushion called “the donut,” help prevent keel sores.

For every problem solved, though, three more pop up. Keel cushions, Duerr explains, are “not a benign thing to strap onto a bird.” Velcro strap edges cause wounds if incorrectly applied, and early donut versions tended to make birds flip over, get stuck on their back, and die.

Today’s reconfigured design is made of cotton. Tomorrow’s might feature a lighter, stretchier, natural rubber material called Yulex. Apparel company Patagonia, program operations manager Julie Skoglund notes, is donating Yulex wetsuits to cut and sew into prototype wraps.

Lately, International Bird Rescue has been fixing keel lesions surgically. “Those used to be a euthanizable offense,” says Duerr. Not anymore. During 2015’s Mystery Goo spill, Duerr performed 33 keel surgeries. The birds did great, she recalls. Only two had to be euthanized. 

Nutrition, too, has advanced. Before, birds were fed high-fat food, believing an emaciated animal needs more calories. Turns out, low fat is better. “It’s like with a famine victim,” says Duerr, who pioneered this research. “You don’t give them a hamburger, because it’ll cause metabolic problems.”

Presentation, they’ve learned, also matters. The kitchen at the San Pedro center is stocked with a smorgasbord of dish types: plastic lids (for small shore birds), narrow troughs (ducklings), potted plant liners (egrets), dog bowls (terns and gulls), and kitty litter tubs (pelicans).

“The basic husbandry of a lot of species just wasn’t known in the past,” Duerr says. Now, they know that if you keep a marine bird in a freshwater pool, it’ll need salt supplements. They know that Northern Fulmars can’t be housed with foam—they like to eat it. They know how much a grebe should drink.

Blood analysis, rather than visual assessment, determines if a bird is ready to be returned to the wild. Duerr had another inspired flash recently: Instead of releasing a Common Murre from shore as usual, the team might take it out to a group of its fellows on the water, preferably one that's already foraging. But, as with everything oiled-bird related, it’s complicated. It means releasing the bird by boat, which is not always convenient.

Of course, some things remain problematic, including collecting data on some birds' long-term survival success after release. Trackers have gotten smaller, but are still too big for some birds. GPS backpacks are terrible on grebes, which rely on hydrodynamics to hunt prey; and on pelicans, their use is controversial, says Duerr.  In addition, aspergillosis—a fungal infection that damages lungs—continues to be a struggle. “It’s a death sentence for birds,” says Bergeron. Drug trials are underway at University of California, Davis, and North Carolina State University, exploring sprays and long-acting injectable agents like poloxamers, which are liquid while cold and solid gel at body temperature. Nothing has yet come of them.

And besides the many recognized unknowns, new ones keep emerging. “In the past, most spills were in the ocean,” Bergeron says. But with more oil moving by railroad, spills on land are up, increasing risk for a whole new suite of species.

Sometimes, despite all the advancements, an oiled bird is simply too sick to survive. Such was the case with grebe B440. After four days of critical care, he remained emaciated, had gastrointestinal issues, couldn’t thermoregulate, and never stabilized enough to be washed. Ultimately, the team opted to humanely euthanize him. Western Grebes, 35 to 45 percent of which survive to be released, make for difficult patients.

The effort put in trying to save B440, however, was not in vain. Rather, it’s a chance to learn, practice, and improve for next time. To Bergeron, for whom “every bird matters,” that is time well spent.