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.

Refugio Beach Oil Spill Recap: 5 Year Status Update

A little over 5 years ago on May 19th, 2015, an underground pipeline running parallel to Highway 101 ruptured near Refugio State Beach (just north of Santa Barbara). As a result, 123,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled, 50,000 of which ran down a ravine under the freeway and entered the ocean.

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The Oiled Wildlife Care Network was activated and our responders sprung into action to rescue oiled wildlife in need of assistance.  As you can see in the summary table below, this was a significant wildlife response, especially considering the high number of marine mammal patients. Over 90 responders joined the effort from 21 different OWCN Member Organizations, logging over 1600+ hours!

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To summarize the large response operation, lessons learned and heroic efforts of many, the OWCN created a Refugio Incident Report, which you can view here. This document summarizes our responder hotwash hosted at UC Davis after the incident in 2015. In reviewing such documents years later, it is always reassuring to see that many of the challenges listed have been addressed operationally. This ensures that we learn and improve from every response, maintaining our ability to provide the best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife.

And while the focus of OWCN is to provide top notch oiled wildlife response operations from capture to release, there is another aspect of our efforts that does not come to fruition immediately.  The wildlife data we collect, including the summary of both live and dead oiled wildlife, all factor into the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, led by California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response (CDFW OSPR). Want to learn more about the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process?  Click here.

We are excited to share that just two weeks ago, the draft restoration and assessment plan for the Refugio Oil Spill was presented to the public. You can view the May 13th presentations and FAQs on the CDFW OSPR website here:

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Thank you to all our OWCN responders, CDFW OSPR and everyone involved in responding to this incident.  While we will never forget, we were able to grow from this response and apply lessons learned toward our new and improved operations of present day.

The OWCN Management Team



Please Do Not Disturb!

Last week Kyra blogged about our trip to Ventura to try to recapture Pelican N-12, one of the control birds from the Refugio pelican post-release study. While the satellite telemetry aspects of the project have provided a huge amount of information on these birds, the companion efforts by OWCN and International Bird Rescue to get the public to report sightings of pelicans with green or blue leg bands has also been quite successful.

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Green Banded Pelican. Photo Deborah Jaques

In some areas like Half Moon Bay it has almost become a sport, with individuals and bird- and whale- watching boats constantly on the lookout and trying to get close for a clear photo of the band number. We greatly appreciate everyone who has reported birds and made their contribution to our study, but we also want to remind everyone that getting too close can be harmful not just to the animal you are focusing on but also others nearby. In some cases, like nesting plovers or terns, there are obvious signs to help you avoid disturbing birds.


It may seem like pelicans have an easy life, just sitting on the pier or breakwater all day sunning themselves. Some might even think that getting them to fly a bit is good exercise. But like many wild animals, a pelican’s ability to find food versus their energy expenditures are often very finely balanced. As you can imagine, with a bird as large as a pelican, getting up into the air can take a fair bit of effort. If that effort results in a new fish in the belly or avoiding being injured or killed, I think we would all agree it was worth it. But each time there is an energy cost to each bird. When people, dogs, boats, or anything unfamiliar gets too close, birds will try to move farther away, just like we do when someone we don’t know or don’t like gets right up in our face. And when they are resting and hanging out together in large groups like on a beach or a breakwater, they may fly without a direct threat but just because other birds do.

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Even if they don’t fly, their heightened vigilance may keep them from normal rest or preening activities.


Photo: Bart Selby

A 1997 study “Buffer zone distances to protect foraging and loafing waterbirds from human disturbance in Florida” found that brown pelicans disturbed by a walking human flushed at just under 30 meters, and recommended a buffer of 100 meters for approach on foot. The recommendation for motor boats was 120 meters.

While in some situations it is possible to get closer to wild birds without disturbing them, especially with special techniques or equipment, in most situations it is best to give them plenty of space. Use binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses to record and report band numbers. As Hippocrates wrote “First Do No Harm”.

And thanks again for keeping an eye out for colored bands.


Refugio Pelican Update

We wanted to give everyone an update on the post-release pelican study from the Refugio spill, now almost one year ago. You may recall that 12 oiled pelicans and 8 control pelicans were outfitted with satellite tags so we could compare their movements and survival. In addition, all oiled pelicans that were released (not just the satellite tagged pelicans) got a green color band.  Please report all pelicans with green bands to us here if you see them. While you are out looking for pelicans, if you do happen to see any with blue bands, please report those birds to International Bird Rescue.  Even though we have a few control birds from this study that are sporting blue bands, most of the pelicans out there that have blue bands were rehabilitated by International Bird Rescue, and getting reports on where these birds are is extremely valuable.

Currently we have about 6 or 7 birds still transmitting. Two birds, one control and one oiled bird, have made some trips to Anacapa Island as if they were thinking about breeding, but they haven’t been there lately, so it’s unlikely that they are breeding.

A couple of control birds are hanging out in San Diego, and one of the rehabilitated birds is at a large lake in Baja California. Two other rehabilitated birds are in Baja; one is traveling north in the Gulf of California, and the other is in the central part of the Gulf of California. This last bird is a challenge . . . his satellite tag has stopped transmitting for extended periods of time, and then suddenly starts transmitting again right about the time we’ve decided the bird (or the tag) is dead. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible!

This May 7th, Audubon California sponsored a Brown Pelican Birding Blitz, where members of the public were encouraged to go find and report pelicans (AND maybe see some color-banded birds!). We are waiting to hear if anyone saw our green-banded birds! More information about the Blitz can be found here.

Here’s a map of the pelicans from the past month. If you look carefully around Los Angeles, you can see a bit of yellow peeking through — those dots all got covered by the bird in red. And near San Diego, you can see some blue dots . . . . that’s our bird with the satellite tag that seems lazy.


Current locations of Brown Pelicans that are part of the post-release study from the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill.

– Christine

Destruction Isn’t Always Black and Slimy

A balloon drifts by a nesting colony of the endangered California least tern. Photo credit: Marie Travers

A balloon drifts by a colony of endangered California least terns.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

During the Refugio Incident oil spill, I had the honor of spending time at the field staging area with some of our field responders. These folks spent their 12-hour workdays trekking up and down beaches, searching for and responding to reports of oiled wildlife.

Trash collected from a 1000 ft stretch of beach, among nesting least terns and snowy plovers. Photo credit: Marie Travers

Trash collected from a 1000 ft stretch of beach, among nesting least terns and snowy plovers.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

But even when they didn’t find oiled wildlife on their outings, they never returned empty-handed. Instead, they brought back handfuls of trash and litter, everything from plastic bags and bottle caps to fishing line and wire.

At the time, our staging area was located at a closed campground near a protected beach – protected because of the endangered and threatened species that could be found there, including a least tern colony and nesting snowy plovers. I’d estimate hundreds of species called that protected bit of beach home – there’s always far more wildlife than you see, and we encountered mallards, ruddy ducks, scoters, stilts, avocets, horned grebes, pelicans, gulls, harbor seals, sea lions, and… well, you get the idea.

Twice a day, we would walk that beach, searching for oiled animals and picking up trash. We never left empty-handed.

This isn’t unusual, and it isn’t good. As icky as we find litter like this (and it does have negative effects on the economy and human health), it’s downright devastating to wildlife. Fishing line causes terrible entanglement issues, animals can get stuck trying to get the last smidge of food out of a poorly-shaped yogurt container, and bits of plastic and foil are mistaken as food and ingested by many species. These things can and do result in injury and often death.

Entanglement Photo credit: Marie Travers

Entanglement in particular causes severe damage that does not always respond to treatment, though there are plenty of uplifting stories as well.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

We like to think that litter like this comes from careless people who can’t be bothered to find a trash can, and I’m sure some of it does. But the truth is litter comes from all sorts of places – many of which you’d never think of.

Photo credit: Marie Travers Sad that a symbol of celebration and victory can cause such unintended destruction!

Sad that a symbol of celebration and victory can cause such harm.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

Balloons for example – how many times have you seen an escaped balloon floating away from a kid at a fair, and thought about the danger it poses to wildlife? It seems pretty innocent, but once those balloons are out of sight, they don’t cease to exist. They end up in beautiful places like our protected beach, where they stick around for a long time (especially the mylar ones; those things are nigh-indestructible). Then wild animals can encounter them.

So how can you help?

  • At home, dispose of items like balloons, plastic bags, yogurt containers, and fishing line properly.
  • Reduce the use of these items, and you’ll reduce their presence in the waste-stream – for example, use reusable shopping bags and washable containers.
  • You can consider volunteering with a beach clean-up program, like the California Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday Sept 19, 2015 – but really, no need to wait, just pick up any trash you see when you go out to the beach!
  • Stop and help/report entangled or trapped wildlife; allowing permitted wildlife rehabilitation professionals to provide the care they need.

Be well, and thanks for caring about the animals!


Oil Spill Over, But Animal Care Continues

The following is a guest blog by Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue.  Even though the majority of animals that we had in care from the spill have been released, our colleagues at International Bird Rescue and SeaWorld have been hard at work caring for the remaining animals.  Thank you for all the effort you have put into caring for the special cases that need a little more time before release! -Becky

Photo credit: Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue

Photo credit: Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue

When an oil spill occurs, the media rush in to meet the public’s desire to know what the environmental effects will be, putting forth iconic images of struggling wildlife and crude-covered habitats. They then go on to capture inspiring moments of cleanup efforts and successfully washed and saved animals. Unfortunately (and understandably), public interest wanes as the cleanup process draws down. The beaches are reopened for public use, and the majority of what the public sees has been neutralized. However, this is not the story’s end for wildlife rehabilitators and the affected wildlife that remain in care.

Hundreds of wildlife specialists across California are trained to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife affected by oil spills. Contaminated animals are rescued and transported to a wildlife hospital, where they are stabilized, washed to remove the oil, and treated for injuries. Sometimes removing the contaminant is not enough though; in fact, the crude very often masks secondary injuries and health problems. For example, the contaminant can render the animal’s primary defense against injury and harm—its hair, fur, or feathers—ineffective, leading to starvation, hypothermia, burns, and other wounds. The upshot is that animals impacted by oil spills often must remain in care longer than expected.

The recent oil spill near Refugio State Beach impacted hundreds of native animals, primarily sea birds and marine mammals, with the California Brown Pelican being the most affected bird. Wildlife hospitals, such as International Bird Rescue, were tasked to treat the contaminated sea birds. Trained technicians, volunteers, and veterinary staff at Bird Rescue spent countless hours washing and restoring the patients to full health. By the time the oil spill cleanup was over, all but three of the rescued birds had been given a clean bill of health and released.

Photo credit: Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue

Photo credit: Kelly Berry of International Bird Rescue

One of the three, a Ring-Billed Gull (number R56), was emaciated and dehydrated upon admission into care; in addition, its feathers were in such poor condition that it could not sustain flight. This gull, which took several days of supportive care just to recover its willingness to eat, is currently molting and doing laps in the Bird Rescue aviary as it grows strong enough to fly. The second bird, Brown Pelican W19, came into care completely coated in oil. After W19 was washed, staff found a chest abscess that required antibiotics and surgery. The abscess was surgically removed, and the bird completed a full course of antibiotics. Now fully healed and flying beautifully, W19 was released on August 18. And the final patient, Brown Pelican W1005, was covered in oil and had a foot infection from an unknown source. This bird has been washed, has undergone two surgeries, and remains on antibiotics. W1005’s prognosis is guarded, but Bird Rescue staff are working hard to ensure it gets all the care it needs.

For each individual wild animal, the traumatic physical effects of an oil spill end when it is returned home. International Bird Rescue, along with every diligent wildlife organization that makes up the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, holds one basic conviction for dealing with affected animals: Every individual matters. The collective goal in our community is to restore every animal to full health and release it back into the wild.

-Kelly Berry

Refugio Incident Update 8/19/2015

Photos and updates on animals affected by the Refugio Incident, provided by the Joint Information Center:

Three California sea lions returned to the wild off the California coast near San Diego on August 16, after wildlife care experts determined they were ready for release.  They were wearing satellite tags so scientists can track their activities following their rehabilitation after the oil spill. Wildlife experts captured the sea lions during the Refugio Oil Spill Response that started on May 19, when Pipeline 901 leaked oil into the Pacific Ocean in northern Santa Barbara County.


Have You Seen Me?

Green-banded (as well as blue-banded) pelicans are out there and we need your help in reporting them!  The green-banded birds are the Brown Pelicans that were brought to the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center during the Refugio Oil Spill. They were subsequently washed, rehabilitated, and released. And we want to follow them as much as we can and find out how they do. This is where YOU come in! This information is very important for figuring out what happens to these pelicans after they are released. Where do they go? What do they do? Do they survive? Do they breed successfully? These are just some of the questions that we would like to answer. There are very few studies out there that have successfully followed animals after an oil spill. And yet this type of information is crucial for helping determine the best care of oiled animals.

Refugio Spill pelican with a green band. (Photo by Mike Harris).

Refugio Spill pelican with a green band. (Photo by Mike Harris).

So if you see a pelican wearing some green jewelry (see picture), please report it here.

International Bird Rescue also bands pelicans that go through rehabilitation, but they band them with blue bands. If you see a pelican with a blue band, please report it here.

By reporting pelicans with colored bands, you will be contributing to expand the body of knowledge of what happens to animals after they are released.

Thank you in advance!


Bye Bye Baby!

Our great OWCN staff at International Bird Rescue released “the baby” this week with great fanfare (not to mention a lifeguard escort). Because few of us here in San Pedro had experience with fledgling cormorants, the baby provided both entertainment (those adorable squeaky sounds!) and education. We consulted with folks who have more experience with cormies at this age, so we all learned a little something.

The baby Brandt’s went from a fluffy puffball to a sleek, streamlined cormorant in the weeks he’s been with us, but that hasn’t stopped us from continuing to refer to him as a baby. I guess it is always hard to admit it when your baby grows up!

Kelly got some fantastic photos of his release, which as I mentioned included a boat escort by the Cabrillo Beach lifeguards so he could be released out on the water. A big shout-out to the lifeguards for helping to get this guy home!

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Here he was as a fluffy baby.


Here he is heading out of the carrier.


Here he is getting ready to take the big plunge.















And here he is in the water!


A Loud Good-bye

2015-06-25 12.22.48Guess who went home today? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t a quiet exit. That’s right, we released Grebey today! I heard him (yes, we measured his bill and discovered that despite our use of the feminine pronoun, he was a male after all) scream as he came out of the pool, and he screamed again while getting weighed, and then again going into the carrier.

Surprisingly, he was silent as Kelly took him out of carrier at the beach and placed him in the water. Perhaps he sensed the solemnity of the occasion. He looked around for a few minutes as he swam away from us, and then he started diving and looking like a proper grebe. That the was cue for his entourage of staff and volunteers to head back to the center for lunch.

Grebey, or Green 10, was the first non-pelican affected by the Refugio spill to be released. On Saturday, we’ll be releasing several more pelicans at Goleta Beach, so if you’re in the area, please join us. Thanks to everyone who participated in the OWCN response to make the release of these birds possible!