Should We Just Euthanize the Gulf's Oil-Soaked Birds?

By Andrew Moseman | June 10, 2010 3:59 pm

pelicansPeople have now recovered nearly 500 oiled-but-alive birds from the Gulf region. Many of these are the brown pelicans, which—adding insult to tragedy—is Louisiana’s state bird. They have become grimy symbols of BP’s catastrophe, and responders are racing to save the birds and clean them.

But increasingly, the disheartening but necessary question has arisen: Should we euthanize them instead of trying to save them?


Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University, told the AP that it might be hard to stomach the thought, but trying to save the brown pelicans and other oily birds could be futile. To help the birds, responders must capture them, hold them in captivity, go through the exhaustive process of cleaning them, and set them free somewhere where they won’t fly back to the oil. In the case of BP’s leak, oil has spread so far that rescuers are currently taking Louisiana birds all the way to Tampa Bay, Florida.

Kendall, for one, is skeptical that our efforts do much good, and the data aren’t encouraging.

The arm of the federal government that nominally oversees offshore rigs agrees with Kendall, and has for some time. “Studies are indicating that rescue and cleaning of oiled birds makes no effective contribution to conservation, except conceivably for species with a small world population,” the U.S. Minerals Management Service said in a 2002 environmental analysis of proposed Gulf oil drilling projects. “A growing number of studies indicate that current rehabilitation techniques are not effective in returning healthy birds to the wild” [AP].

UC-Davis Ornithologist Daniel Anderson points out that we can’t really address damage oil has done to internal organs, either, which is part of the reason the numbers show no significant survival rates for the hard-to-save animals over the long term. He says:

“It might make us feel better to clean them up and send them back out. But there’s a real question of how much it actually does for the birds, aside from prolong their suffering” [Newsweek].


But, Anderson counters, maybe we just owe it to them.

“If nothing else, we’re morally obligated to save birds that seem to be savable,” Anderson said [AP].

And methods seem to be improving, at least slightly, as responders sadly get more practice.

In the past, birds were cleaned right away, and volunteers often worked through the night bathing rescued birds. But, as research has since shown, the stress of capture and cleaning can be profoundly deleterious to a bird’s health—knocking hormones out of balance and exacerbating organ damage. So now, captured birds are left to rest for a day or two before being cleaned, and only washed during the day, so as not to disrupt their circadian rhythms [Newsweek].

Part of the argument for euthanizing could be that time would be better spent on saving habitats or endangered species as opposed to cleaning doomed birds. But, as Anderson points out, citizens demand it and will try to do it themselves if organized responders don’t. If you care about birds, or devoted your life to them, how could you not?

“What do you want us to do? Let them die?” said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, who has aided oiled animals for 40 years [AP].

Recent posts on the Gulf oil spill:
80beats: Meet the Oil-Covered Pelicans, Symbols of the BP Oil Spill
80beats: This Hurricane Season Looks Rough, And What If One Hits the Oil Spill?
80beats: We Did the Math: BP Oil Spill Is Now Worse Than the Exxon Valdez
80beats: “Top Kill” Operation Is Under Way in Attempt to Stop Gulf Oil Leak
80beats: Scientists Say Gulf Spill Is Way Worse Than Estimated. How’d We Get It So Wrong?

Image: flickr / IBRRC

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Doug Watts

    Part of the argument for euthanizing could be that time would be better spent on saving habitats or endangered species as opposed to cleaning doomed birds.

    That’s not an argument. It’s an excuse. And it’s also illiterate. How do you save “habitats” during a giant oil spill?

    What a moronic story.

  • Brian Too

    Weren’t the brown pelicans just recently taken off the endangered species list? I’d think that, given the size of the oil spill, we’d want to save any individuals we can. Thousands are likely to die anyway and the spill may just push them back to endangered status.

    AFAIK, in a situation like this you don’t release the animals. You hold them in captivity until their habitat is reasonably safe and then release them. That may take a year or two.

  • JJ

    According to Wikipedia, the Brown Pelican was removed from the endangered species list in 1988 as a result of banning DDT and other toxic pesticides in the late 1970s. The species has since returned to least concern status over the last 20 years. I’m not sure where the rumor started that the Brown Pelican was recently removed from the endangered species list, unless it refers to a sub-specie native to the Southern US.

  • mark

    Cost is not an issue, as BP shall be getting the entire bill. If there is a reasonable chance of saving the oiled birds, they need to spend the money.

    It’s a false dichotomy that we can fix the birds or the habitat; we have lots of people in this country, so we can work on both.

    Why not loan the birds out to zoos for a while until the habitats are ready for them?

  • Bee

    I suppose the thing to do would be to take a DNA sample, clone them, and let the oily ones die. More realistically, maybe do more targeted research on how to improve their survival rate.

  • Idlewilde

    The birds should definately be cleaned. Even if one only in a hundred survives-we have to try, because that one bird matters.

    I hope that the birds’ beaks are being sealed between feedings on their day or two of rest, so that they won’t end up ingesting oil.

  • Katharine

    Pelican sweaters?

  • aki

    The video clip I saw of rescuers trying to save the pelicans involved a team in a small motor boat following one individual bird around in the water “until it ran out of energy and could be scooped up”. How much gasoline is being used by those boat motors in this effort? How much gas is being used to fly them or drive them to Florida? I agree that if this looks like the end of the brown pelicans then effort should be spent to save enough individuals to re-start the population, but the amount of oil and gas and human effort being used to save a single individual bird seems better spent sucking up the oil on the surface or putting out more booms, or whatever techniques can be used to get rid of the oil.

  • Eliza Strickland

    JJ- I see where your confusion came from. The Wikipedia page mentions that the brown pelican was removed from The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species in 1988, presumably because of healthy populations in Peru and elsewhere.

    However, the brown pelican was listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act until last year, because the population in the Gulf had a real tough time coming back. Here’s the official page from the US Fish & Wildlife office, which says that the pelican was delisted on 11/17/09.

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • lucas

    Oh, I see. So we can’t save endangered state birds because of human error but we can accept illegal immigrants and their litters, who provide NOTHING for this country but junk trucks and crammed one-bedroom apartments. NICE!

  • JRobin

    Can we refrain from the name calling, insults and bigotry? It contributes nothing to solving the problems. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but we can be civil about it.

  • Roselyn

    Do not euthanize. Let’s use a little logic. A generation or two after Exxon Valdez spill, so much damage to the local marine life that POLAR BEARS ARE THREATENED. The long-reached effects of demise of a few species impacts ALL OTHER SPECIES ON THE PLANET. We MUST save enough individuals/variant dna of each species to maintain and thrive wild populations. Pray that some individual birds saved will be added to the mix of dna in captive populations–zoos, sanctuaries and such.

  • Kristind

    Mark on #4 SAID IT BEST! I agree!!! BP caused this mess. BP can pay for this and all the other problems their negligence has cost the US and the wildlife.

  • Melissa

    Not sure if this is possible but if we can somehow get their DNA while the marine and wildlife is being cleaned – which is still crucial in the event that even two live to procreate..perhaps there’s hope that we can reintroduce them in the future.

    I’m having a really hard time fathoming that humanity has just destroyed such a huge percentage of wildlife..this is truly the most depressing time of all of our lives and I just don’t see improvements being made in our lifetime or perhaps during what’s left of humanity’s existence on this planet. Forcing oil to the bottom of the ocean will only make things worse as there’s no way for the oil to dissolve or wear away when it’s so far from the sun and the elements…many of the ocean’s creatures rely on what resides along the bottom for survival. In this case, out of site is not out of mind.


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