contrarians say oiled birds almost all die, even when they've been
washed. They cite some studies with sad results. They say that washing
them isn't in their best interest. That they will suffer painful deaths
after they're released. That euthanasia is the humane course. That there
are better ways to spend money to help birds than on doomed victims.
That it's not worth it.
Oiled birds don't know rescuers are trying to save them, so they don't cooperate, yet they share a goal with the rescuers. They're struggling to live.
Animals don't want to suffer, but they'd rather suffer than die.
Sometimes it's worth it to animal species and populations. Sometimes it's not. (But since when have people cared only about species and populations? We're obsessed with individuals.)
As for those studies? People who say that most washed birds die anyway are picking the grimmest studies they can find. If they picked other studies, they could find much happier results. In some studies, many birds survive.
Unfortunately, studies are hard to compare. The rate of survivorship depends on a lot of things. What kind of birds were oiled, what kind of oil it was, how quickly they were brought for washing, how cold they got beforehand. Different rescue groups have different standards for triage and for release, which makes their results hard to compare.
It would also be relevant to know what survivorship was of birds that were never oiled and washed. In some species, most birds – especially first-year birds – don't make it from one year to the next even when life is great.
Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) are one of the species being washed in large numbers in the Gulf, and they're tough types.
Another tough customer that's suffered from oil spills is the African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) also called the Black-footed penguin for its dark feet, or the jackass penguin for its poignant brays.
The 2000 sinking of the MV Treasure drenched their nesting islands in oil. 19,500 penguins were washed and released. They've survived well and gone on to breed almost as successfully as non-oiled birds. (There had been a previous big spill there in 1994, when the Apollo Sea went down in the same area.)
One great thing about penguins is that they can wear flipper bands you can read at a distance, and they stand around while you get the binoculars on them. So it's relatively easy to get penguin data.
While the birds are tough, the species was officially Vulnerable in 2000, and is now Endangered. This is probably because they can't get enough fish to eat, probably because commercial fisheries near the islands are catching so many.
Here's the thing: using that good penguin data, it's been calculated that this imperiled population is 19% bigger than it would have been if oiled penguins hadn't been washed and released.
In 1996, after the Anitra oil spill in Delaware, some endangered piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) were among the oiled birds.
Rescuers from Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research trapped and washed the oily plovers. Because it was nesting season, they released them earlier than they ordinarily would. One of the birds was a female, whose mate hadn't been oiled. He sat tight on the eggs while she was missing.
When she reappeared, skinny, clean, and ready to take her *&^%$& turn, he jumped up and raced off for his first decent meal in two days. They settled back into their nesting routine, but some *&*^*$# came along and ate their eggs. She laid some more. Some #$%&^* came along and ate those. She laid some more. A late storm buried the nest in sand. The next morning the plovers dug up the eggs and resumed sitting on them. One egg hatched. Plover chick!