Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Common murre--oil spill

Donna A. Dewhurst, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
I didn't know much about seabirds when I volunteered to help clean the ones caught in an oil spill off Grays Harbor, Washington, in December 1988.

I was shown how to hold an alarmed bird's beck scissored between two fingers to avoid being stabbed, how to wield the water-piks and soft toothbrushes used to loosen the worst of the black gunk, and how to work the oil-cutting suds in between feathers.

I was then handed a black bird and told that it was a murre. As the water sluiced away the stinky ooze, I was amazed to discover that the bird in my hands had a breast of startling white. This is how I learned that murres resemble penguins when not covered with killing oil.

Other volunteers kept new basins of water coming as we washers worked--each bird had to be repeatedly transferred to clean, warm water--to survive they needed to have every speck of oil washed away, and they had to be kept warm while this hour-long procedure took place.

Common murres were particularly vulnerable to the oil spill. They feed by diving beneath the water surface and so became thoroughly coated with the oil. Also, because they are gregarious, a large segment of their population was affected. Other seabirds share these traits, but because murres are more numerous, they came into the hastily-created center in staggering numbers.

There are two murres I remember most clearly from the scores I handled during those terrible, hectic days of cleaning. One was the first, with its bright white feathers suddenly revealed; the other was one who had endured the spill, the capture, the wait under warming lights with all the other soiled seabirds, the force feedings, and nearly the entire hour of washing, only to die in my hands as I rinsed away the last suds.

This was not unusual. Birds that initially survive a spill may not survive all the handling needed to capture, clean, and eventually release them. Many die of shock.

I later learned that of the 10,000 seabirds collected in that relatively small spill, 9,000 were dead or died in captivity (statistics show that seventy-five percent of cleaned birds die); only 1,000 survived the ordeal and were released back to the ocean.

Should we try to clean oil-coated birds? What do you think?


  1. Yes!  If we save one in ten, that's better than nothing.  And the more we do this, the better we will get at it.  Maybe this is the year we discover a way to save five in ten.

  2. I'm with Roxie, 10% saved is better than all perish. Thanks for those you saved. Of those that were cleaned, it was a higher percentage of 25%. 

  3. Each of us in God's creation are worth caring for.  Having lived at the coast (but never doing anything as heroic and compassionate as you for murres, Pat) and seen oil spilled birds I was interested in your detailed description of how to clean them.  What a wonderful community or service learning project for students to learn? Haystack as the "Haystack Awareness Project in Cannon Beach during the summer; maybe partnerships can be developed.
      I saw the common (brown, I think, murre, off of Ecola Park.)  It is thrilling for me to see any wild creature.
      Thank you, Pat, for your proactive involvement in the world around us. I admire all you have done and are doing.  I would like some of your training to rub off!

  4.  "are' should be an 'is"...don't know how to edit once it's posted. :}

  5. Yes an attempt should be made to save wild life every time people screw them over. The corporations should also fund the attempts to improve the procedures to improve the odds of surviving.

  6. I believe it is worth the attempt even to save those 1000. Better than losing them all.

  7. Here's hoping the things I learned are now outdated, and there are better methods. Can't imagine an easy way to get that gunk off, tho. I was lucky that I could take time away to volunteer--most jobs wouldn't allow that, so I suppose it was mostly students, retired, and under-employed folks who were able to show up. Plenty more (like you) would have been there if they could have.

  8. There are ways to clean oiled birds, and there are ways to -save- oiled birds. Success rates can be astronomical if things are handled properly, and there are even ways to prevent birds getting oiled in the first place during a spill.

    You have to watch this TED talk. It'll make you smile.

  9. It does seem strange that we bring destruction with us wherever we travel. I notice paths eroded where footsteps trod over tender meadows. Trash on trails. I admire your efforts. I know cleaning birds would make me angry and gut sick. I think it comes down to...I don't want to be a part of a world who shrugs and doesn't at least try to fix our mistake...even though our efforts are somewhat futile. Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Looks like your readers are all in agreement. Does that surprise any of us? :-) We should definitely make the attempt---as in that old starfish story that went around for a few years---even if you  make a difference for only one, you've made a difference for that one.  And it could make a larger difference in the local ecosystem.  

  11. But I have to add, I'd also like to make the difference at the level of  eliminating oil spills in the first place.

  12. Figure it is going to happen for now and make the big corporations
    become more proactive in protecting wild life before and after a spill.

    Beloved Apple has 100 billion dollars they don't know what to do with. Is any of it going to go towards wild life preservation?

    Perhaps this is coming from the deep end but I would say it has to be the way the oil is handled no matter what the end use is.

    That can start now, not when oil is removed from the combustible fuel list.
    Unfortunately, probably half or more of the worlds oil production is in
    countries with laws that protect the energy industry and also the
    agricultural and commercial real estate industries which also impact a
    lot of wild life in a negative way.

    It is a sticky problem. We would really have to stop using oil to stop the spills and the leakage and the pollution caused by its handling  from ground to final resting place in ground or sky.

    Even if we stopped using oil as a combustible fuel, the owners of the oil would just find new  uses or expand old uses. The biggest new use might be to make food and medical/medicinal products  for poor people.  Seven billion and growing strong. That would use a lot of oil. You would still have the oil coming out of the ground, still shipped, still spilled and leaked.

  13. Huh, very interesting--thanks, Aubra! What a trick--rounding up the birds and moving them out of the way of the oil...

  14. Well, I was a little surprised!  There is a school of thought that we're causing more harm than good--kind of torturing these poor birds, and euthanasia is kinder. But everyone here does seem to be on the same page.

  15. Try to save what you can and the dump the dead 90% on the steps of the oil companies ... 

  16. Oh, that so reminds me of The Fox--an anonymous environmental activist in Chicago (in the late sixties or early seventies, I think), who collected 50 pounds of sewage from the stuff that was being dumped into Lake Michigan, took it to the corporation's headquarters, and dumped it on their carpet.

    (A nice touch: he later sent roses to the stunned office receptionist.)

  17. Angle oil likewise encourages cerebrum development and helps it to capacity all the more successfully. Have we understood now that there is obviously a requirement for fish oil? Be that as it may, it's not fundamental to pick a fish oil item which cases to be "remote ocean angle oil."