Less Than 1% of Oil-Soaked Birds Survive

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A woman in goggles holds a bird covered in oil.

Brian Epstein International Bird Rescue Research Center / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

"Kill, don't clean" oiled birds
No, that's not the opinion of a heartless bird-hater, or BP CEO Tony Hayward letting fly another tactless gaffe. It's the actual recommendation of one oil spill expert and animal biologist who says that once birds are thoroughly oiled, the best course of action is to put them out of their misery. Even if all the crude is scrubbed from their feathers, she says, oiled birds are all but certain to die a long, painful death.

This may shock many, and the advice certainly appears contrary to that of the myriad conservationists who have set up centers around the Gulf to care for oiled birds.

But Der Spiegel reports on why this biologist is dead serious:

Despite the short-term success in cleaning the birds and releasing them back into the wild, few, if any, have a chance of surviving, says Silvia Gaus, a biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park along the North Sea in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.
"According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent," Gaus says. "We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds."

Instead, she says, it would be less painful for the birds to kill them quickly, or to let them die in peace.

Cleaning Birds Worse than Letting Them Die?

Two woman in gloves and goggles wash a pelican covered in oil.

International Bird Rescue Research Center / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Capturing and scrubbing the birds is a traumatic experience, and is incredibly stressful for the birds. Gaus also says that forcing birds to ingest coal solutions like Pepto Bismol as rescue workers are doing in the Gulf is ineffective, and that the birds will die from liver and kidney damage anyways. Birds ingest the toxic oil while attempting to clean their feathers.

According to a British Study cited in the report, the average bird released after cleaning in other spills only survived for seven days. Even the World Wildlife Fund agrees that cleaning is largely futile: "Birds, those that have been covered in oil and can still be caught, can no longer be helped. ... Therefore, the World Wildlife Fund is very reluctant to recommend cleaning."

Which is why Gaus advocates a quick clean death for the birds, to end their suffering. It's an unfortunate recommendation, and one that goes against our better instincts, but what if Gaus and those who side with her are right? If scrubbing oiled birds only increases their trauma -- and they still die, painfully, shortly after -- are such bird-cleaning operations providing any service other than to make a public show of BP's 'response' efforts? It's indeed depressingly grim to consider, but perhaps conservationists are doing more harm than good by 'saving' birds from the BP Gulf spill.