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Cleaned but not Saved?

Bird On! News
15th May 1996

A new report, published this week, has thrown the bird world into turmoil. For many years it has been realised that most of the pathetic victims of oiling disasters which have been cleaned and released will quickly die. But just how many of the supposedly rehabilitated birds are doomed? The latest results from the United States seem to show that, at best, only 10% - 20% are able to return to a normal life.

Brian Sharp, writing in Ibis - the journal of the British Ornithologist's Union (138, 2: 222-228), reported on cleaning operations for several species but most were Guillemots. Mean life expectancy of ringed rehabilitated birds was less than 10 days. For healthy non-oiled birds it was almost a year and a half! He also looked at the long-term recoveries because there could clearly be bias for the rehabilitated birds to be found shortly after release. Even making the most careful allowances it was clear that the very best results indicated that between 80-90% actually died quickly - even when they were released apparently in good health.

This brings to the forefront of public debate whether or not attempts should continue to be made to clean badly oiled birds found beached after tragedies like the recent spill from the Sea Empress. Brian Sharp quotes figures of between 9% and 60% of live birds brought to collection centres surviving to be released - on average 35%. This means that for every 1000 live Guillemots (the most usual victim of oiling) collected after an incident, on average between 35 and 70 will really be saved to return to the wild population. A staggering 930 to 965 will die a foul death despite all the best efforts of the rescuers.

The only really successful rehabilitations ever reported have been for Jackass Penguins off South Africa. Here whole populations of these flightless birds have been oiled but they are very robust and up to 84% of released birds have later been found in the wild breeding colonies.

Should we be putting these tragic birds, found oiled round our coasts, through this amount of stress with such a small chance for the individual to lead a normal life again? Or is the compassionate course of action to put them out of their misery? I believe these results confirm that the suffering of these birds is, in the vast majority of cases, to no avail. I can understand the desperate feelings of the rescuers that they should do something to help the birds but, realistically, it may be better for the birds to put them to sleep immediately. Guillemots are a very common bird and there is no immediate concern for the survival of the species. With the Common Scoter from the Sea Empress there was a stronger conservation case for cleaning. It is thought that the wintering birds are very faithful to their wintering site and so saving even a few birds could help the affected population to build up again. These ducks may be more robust than Guillemots and able to survive their treatment better.

I contacted Dr Kenny Taylor, former chairman of the Seabird Group and a long term seabird researcher, and he was very worried by these results. He said:

"All oil spills are different but it does look as if this report should cause us to take a long, hard look at the benefits from cleaning in relation to the suffering the birds have to undergo. Perhaps the time has come for a full analysis of data from British cleaned birds to find out if the real success rate for cleaning is as bad here as in America. If the results are no better I think a strong case could be made for immediate euthanasia for many oiled birds found in the future. I have long thought that the money spent on cleaning would be far better used for long-term research on our seabirds. This might lead to conservation measures to benefit a whole range of species rather than possibly helping a tiny percentage of the treated individuals to be returned successfully to the wild."

The RSPCA is the UK's national organisation concerned with cleaning birds. They have a modern specialised cleaning station in Somerset but this can be overwhelmed when a big incident like the Sea Empress occurs. They believe that they should try to help any animal in distress and they point to some ringed birds they have cleaned surviving up to 10 years from release.

All concerned with the welfare of seabirds are angry that they should still have to worry about oiling. Deliberate discharges are illegal and should not happen, and with modern navigation aids modern vessels should never be wrecked. However, oiled birds will continue to be washed up on our shores. There is bound to be a difference of opinion on what is the best thing to do - kill or cure for ultimate release a tiny percentage of the affected birds?

Chris Mead

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