Monday, June 14, 2010

Oiled birds: to clean or not to clean

We're the type of people who pick featherless blind birdies who have fallen out of their nests off the sidewalk and try to save them, so for us, it's always seemed like a no-brainer that one would try to save the birds mired in crude oil as a consequence of a drilling disaster. However, is this really the most compassionate thing?

Maybe not.
[Environmental biologist and expert on oil clean-up, Silvia] Gaus claims that 99% of the rescued and cleaned birds will die, usually within about seven days, and it will be a more painful death that takes longer than if they’d just been left alone. As a consequence, many recommend quick and painless euthanization. A National Geographic article complicates the story, reporting that survival rates depend on characteristics of the spill, but still reports that scientists largely have little hope that many birds rescued from the Gulf will survive. A better strategy for saving birds, they say, is trying to keep them out of the oil in the first place.
Or maybe so.
[S]tudies 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.
In other words, no one really knows. We've put our money on the birdwashers if only because of the starfish parable, which goes something like this:
A person was walking on the beach where thousands of starfish had been stranded by a high tide. The starfish were drying and dying, so the person started picking up survivors and tossing them back into the surf.

Another person walking along the beach asked, "Why are you doing that? You can't save them all and it will hardly make a difference."

The person sent another starfish back into the ocean and said, "It made a big difference to that one."
So, while we know in our hearts that washing crude off the feathers of a few sea birds won't remedy the tragedy of Deepwater Horizon (or industrial civilization), we know in our hearts that it should be done all the same. It is a small chance for humans to act compassionately and with grace towards non-human species, to be kind and caring for wildlife after all the ills we've wrought against them.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your take on this, as long as we keep hammering home the fact that no amount of clean-up of birds, other wildlife, or the coast itself will undo the awful effects of this disaster. And that offshore drilling to prop up our energy-guzzling way of life is a devil's bargain.

I'm afraid that all too often people dissipate their energy in clean-up efforts, which, while admirable, do little to change the underlying political landscape and doom us to more disasters.

Demarcated Landscapes said...

Yes, indeed, Anon. Absolutely.