Do Rehabilitated Oiled Birds Survive?

Did the title catch your eye? I hope so! This question has plagued the public, researchers, and rehabbers for a long time. Back when the animal response to oil spills started and wildlife were collected and washed, many animals did not survive the process. Those that did and were returned to the wild were usually never seen again. Back in those days, the ability to track animals after release was dependent on bands (for birds) or tags based on VHF radio waves if animals were even marked before release.

But we have come a long way since then, and we have gotten better and better at treating the effects of oiling on animals through years of research, (and let’s face it: trial and error). These days it is fair to say that we are good at what we do. Yes, there is always more to learn and the likelihood of survival of a particular animal that gets oiled depends on so many things, just a few of which might be species, time of year they get oiled, how long it takes before they are captured, what the petroleum product is, where on the body they get oiled, how extensive is the oiling, and the list goes on and on. So it really is a very tricky business and not black and white, but a lot of grey.

And really, when we are discussing oiled and rehabilitated animals, there really are three distinct questions: (1) do the animals survive the process of being washed and rehabilitated, (2) how long do they survive after they get released, and (3) do they return to “normal” after being oiled and rehabilitated? These days, not only have we become much better at helping animals after they get oiled, but technology has become much more sophisticated (smaller, better, cheaper, among other advancements) and as a result, it is much easier to track animals after we release them post-wash and rehabilitation. One of the things that we try to do for each spill is to look at each of them as an opportunity to learn more and to get better at how we care for animals.

So, when approximately 100,000 gallons of oil spilled at Refugio State Beach, near Santa Barbara, in May 2015, and many animals were oiled, the OWCN jumped into action. Our effort was not only focused on providing the best capture and care of the affected animals, but also to follow the active efforts we employ during every incident to try to learn as much as we could on how to improve our protocols, our response efforts, and our knowledge on how oil (and oiled wildlife rehabilitation) affects wildlife.

California brown pelican wash at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center

One of the species of birds that was particularly affected by this spill was the Brown Pelican, 50 of which were captured. Of these 50, 46 pelicans survived and were released. Not only was their survival to release high (92%), but of the released pelicans, 12 adults were fitted with solar-powered GPS satellite tags. As part of this study of post-release survival, we also captured eight adult non-oiled pelicans to serve as controls.

After 6 months, 9 of the 12 original oiled and release pelicans were still alive (and 6 of 8 controls), and after one year, the tags from 2 of the oiled/rehabbed birds (and 2 of 8 controls) were still transmitting. Now it’s worth mentioning here that there is no perfect piece of technology that doesn’t have the capability of failing. So just because there were only 2 tags still transmitting after one year does not necessarily mean that the other 10 birds had perished. Tags not only can fail, but they also fall off, so even though they give us very valuable data, they don’t give us the entire picture.

This is where the old-fashioned method of going out and actively searching for the pelicans comes into play. Since the beginning of this study we were fortunate to have Deborah Jaques, AKA “Pelican Lady” (I might be the only one that secretly calls her that, truth be known), as one of our collaborators. Deborah knows more about pelicans than pretty much anyone I know, so working with her has been terrific.  One of the aspects of this study that Deborah has really helped us with is to “ground-truth” the satellite tag data by doing active boat and land surveys for the past 5 years. The main goal of her efforts was to help differentiate between pelicans that may have died versus those that survived but either lost their tag or the tag stopped transmitting.

Deborah and Curt looking for banded pelicans on a jetty in Alameda,CA on Oct. 15, 2020.

As part of this effort, Deborah, Curt (remember him?), and our very own Wendy Massey (Facilities Specialist) have spent the past few days in a boat (following COVID protection guidelines) off the central CA coast looking for banded pelicans. Oh yes – I forgot to mention that not only did we fit the oiled and control pelicans with satellite tags, we also banded them with bright green bands, which are easy to spot from a distance.  These tags also have large numbers, starting with the letter “Z”, so if you do happen to see one of these birds, please report them here or to the Bird Banding Lab. Thanks to the efforts of folks like Deborah, Bart Selby (a citizen scientist that has spotted a record number of these pelicans), and many others, we have been able to compile a list of all the Refugio pelican sightings. Since 2015, more than half of the 46 pelicans that were oiled and rehabilitated from the Refugio spill have been spotted, some of them multiple times!

Curt doing a last-minute boat inspection before heading out to look for pelicans.

So, getting back to the question, do oiled birds that are captured and rehabilitated survive? The answer to this question is much more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”, because as you know, it depends on many many factors.  However, for many of the oiled animals the answer is a resounding “yes!”.  And not only is the answer a Yes with a capital Y, but we can add that not only do they survive, but they thrive, as the pelicans in this study have shown us and will continue to show us into the future.

To read past blogs on the pelican study, click on the links below:


From left to right: Nancy, Tim, Colleen, Mike, Winston, Chris, Kyra, Curt. Photo taken in 2015 during control pelican capture.

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