Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dec 1988: Cleaning oiled birds

"They're crows!" Actually, they're murres.
When I opened the box of oil-coated murres--seabirds that resemble little penguins with their brilliant white breasts and dark backs--someone exclaimed, "They're crows!" The misidentification was understandable: these murres showed not a speck of white.

I was one of many volunteers at the "Oil Spill Command Center," which had been hastily created to deal with the Dec 23, 1988 oil spill off of Grey's Harbor, WA. A British Petroleum oil barge had been accidentally rammed by its tug, and an estimated 231,000 gallons of crude oil was released. While crews raked up the oil on the beaches, sometimes rolling it up mats of it like thick pizza dough, groups of volunteers collected the blackened birds washed up on the beaches.

At the Center, the birds were identified by species, banded according to which beach they were found on and, if alive, tube-fed a high-energy food, and placed in a pen with others of their species. Eventually the birds would be cleaned or, if in poor condition, euthanized. A morgue counted and cataloged the dead birds (eventually 9,000 dead or dying collected; an estimated 90,000 not collected). Outside the building, cleaned birds preened in small pools and awaited their release at safe beaches.

Local newspapers called the operation a "M.A.S.H. unit for birds." Like wounded soldiers from the battlefield, the birds were subjected to triage so the washers received the healthiest birds first. 

Tuber, holder & scoter
Few of us had handled a wild bird before. We were taught to keep the sharp beaks away from our eyes and learned to ignore the painful bites that went through our gloves. Holders discovered it was most effective to sight on one particular bird in a holding pen, come in low to block its escape, and get both wings folded against its body before lifting the bird. Tubers learned how to feed the birds by sliding rubber tubing down their throats and injecting the liquid food directly into their bellies. Four times a day, at 8 am, 12 noon, 4 pm, and 8 pm, the ranks of feeders and holders moved through a maze of pens, caretaking over two thousand seabirds.

Most of the volunteers who responded to the request for help could not have identified a common murre the day before they became intimately familiar with every inch of the birds during the cleaning process. Many of the workers persisted in calling the murres "muirs" and the scoters "scooters," but we all learned their different species personalities.

Mazes of pens
Grebes were screamers who complained bitterly at their treatment. The dead-recogning of their red eyes and quick stabbing motion of their bills (usually used to spear fish) were used at the Command Center to attack any hand near them. They were united in their efforts to repeatedly stab any holder who reached into a group to remove a bird. 

The scoters were heavier and stronger, but their duck bills were harmless. A scoter might hang its head limply and play dead during the cleaning. 

The murres would try to avoid the holders but were not reluctant to bite with their strong black bills. Occasionally a murre might act as protector who attacked when the holder picked up a nearby bird, but usually a murre simply defended itself.

In addition to those species, which were the most common, there were loons, marbled murrlets, aucklets, puffins, gulls, and a sandpiper.

Murres, waiting their turns
The birds were cleaned of oil from 8 am until 9 or 10 at night. Mortality rates are higher when diurnal birds are subjected to the rigorous cleaning operation during nighttime hours, so the birds were left in quiet darkness (and we volunteers retired to our sleeping bags in a gymnasium) until the birds' 8 am feeding.

When we washers arrived in the morning, a lineup of boxes awaited us. We'd choose the end box, open it and seize the oily occupant first by the head to immobilize the beak, then crook two fingers under the folded wings to heft the bird out of its box. We placed it in a tub of hot (108 degrees F) water, which matched seabird body temperature, but put the human washers and holders in a sweat. Dawn dishwashing liquid in the water helped cut the oil. Moments after the bird entered the tub, the water was dark with muddy crude and a new tub of water was needed. Birds might be switched to three or four fresh soapy tubs in as many minutes.

Cleaning the head = most difficult
Cleaning a bird's head was the most difficult and delicate part of the process. Toothbrushes dipped in Dawn scrubbed off much of the oil and Water Piks loosened tiny leftover specks. Eventually the water swirling around the bird remained clear and the washer called for an inspection. A supervisor rolled Q-tips through the seabird's feathers and demanded a rewash for the slightest hint of oil. When the bird passed muster, it was handed over to the rinsers.

A bird from the wash water was soggier than it'd ever been in the ocean, but as suds were rinsed out, its natural waterproofing returned. As handheld shower nozzles were pressed up under the bird's feathers, it was a joy to watch the water bead into droplets. When a quick breath of air dried the down feathers, the bird was ready for a second inspection.

Washing and rinsing a single bird took one to two hours, and some of them could not withstand the process. One particularly oily murre in my charge had taken over an hour to wash. When at last it was clean and I called for inspection, I watched as the white nictating membrane rolled up over its eye. This membrane protects the eye and we often saw it while we scrubbed a bird's head, but this time the membrane did not go back down. It was a sign of shock. The murre's head rolled back and its beak slowly opened and shut. The inspector brought a towel and took the bird to a small cage with heat lamps. I understood that it would die. 

Me, holding onto that grebe's stabby beak
The days at the Center were emotional ones for many of us. One woman told me, "I wasn't too upset about all the oiled birds I saw until I went outside to see the cleaned birds in their pools. I thought that would be uplifting, but it really depressed me instead. I didn't know how they are supposed to look. I didn't know how beautiful they really are."

And there were questions that were hard to answer and ironies that were difficult to ignore. Did the stress we inflicted on the birds throughout the handling, feeding, and cleaning process outweigh the good we attempted by that process? Did our attempt to clean the birds convince the public that oil spills can be washed away? And did we recognize our own use of petroleum products in our efforts? From the plastic Water Piks to the garbage bags we wore to stay clean and dry to the gasoline we used in our cars to drive to the Oil Spill Command Center, we all used the products we saw killing the birds.

And maybe that's why we were there. We were not the blameless saviors of the birds nor were we altruistic heroes. We are a part of the oil-demanding public and in a real way, the oil spill was our fault too. We had been given the opportunity to take responsibility. 

As one volunteer put it, "Ultimately, we are all the oil companies."



Clean birds waiting to return to the ocean


Monday, January 28, 2013

Friday, January 25, 2013

Weekend Haiku & Limericks


Your challenge: write a haiku or limerick featuring one of the subjects discussed here in the past seven days: porcupines, or something from Monday's nature quote. Feel free to mine the comments, too.

Post your haiku or limericks in the comments, below. Remember the pattern of a haiku is:

First, 5 syllables,
the second line has seven.
And 5 at the end.

A limerick is a wee bit more complicated. Here's one description.

Kindly post your haiku or limerick in the comments, below.                   

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Porcupine

By Selected Pixels
A porcupine is one of those animals you don't mistake for anything else. When one stepped out of the forest and waddled across the road in front of my truck, there was no doubt who that pigeon-toed creature was, even though long yellowish hairs hid most of its quills. 

A porcupine has thirty thousand quills (yeeps!) but it's a peaceful creature that typically tries to flee attack. If it's prevented from doing so, it keeps its back to the threat, and raises its hair to reveal all those nasty quills. When attacked, its rear feet stamp about and the tail thrashes, embedding the spines as they make contact with boot, leg, snout, or paws. Although the animal can't "throw" its quills, they are so loosely connected to the skin that some may be flung off by furious swings of its tail.

Porcupines tend to be loners, but they seek the opposite sex during the fall mating season. A courting couple might stand up on their hindlegs and touch noses, which is cute as the dickens. Then comes the tricky part. The old joke goes: "How do porcupines make love?" The punchline--"Verrrrrry carefully"--is not far wrong. They mate with the male behind the female, after she has conveniently lifted her tail over her back. This allows the male to rest a steading paw or lean against a non-bristly surface.

Seven months later, the female is ready to birth a single baby (rarely, two). This raises the second prickly how-do-they-do-that question. The baby (endearingly called a porcupette) is covered by a fetal membrane, and its quills are soft. They dry and harden shortly after birth.

Have you ever seen a porcupine? Or maybe its quills embedded in a dog you love?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Monday's Nature Quote


Now there are some things in the world we can’t change – gravity, entropy, the speed of light, the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics, and our biological nature that requires clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity for our health and well being. Protecting the biosphere should be our highest priority or else we sicken and die. Other things, like capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature, we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them. It makes no sense to elevate economics above the biosphere, for example.
~ David Suzuki

Friday, January 18, 2013

Weekend Haiku & Limericks


Your challenge: write a haiku or limerick featuring one of the subjects discussed here in the past seven days: Alfred and yen, or something from Monday's nature quote. Feel free to mine the comments, too.

Post your haiku or limericks in the comments, below. Remember the pattern of a haiku is:

First, 5 syllables,
the second line has seven.
And 5 at the end.

A limerick is a wee bit more complicated. Here's one description.

Post your haiku or limerick in the comments, below.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Human Nature: Greenpeace days

We worked on a shoestring budget when I was in Greenpeace. After all, our money came from people who donated their hard-earned cash toward our effort, and we were careful how we used it. Still, we could afford an occasional meal out while we were in Japan, and so we accepted the invitation of some English teachers to a restaurant we'd never been to before.

But when we cracked open the menu, we knew we'd come to the wrong place. Nearly everything was more expensive than we could afford without obliterating our budget for the rest of the month. So we did what you have to in such a situation: we ate low on the financial food chain. I ordered a side of rice, someone else ordered a bowl of miso soup, one of the guys had beer, as I recall. 

The English teachers spent with abandon--in those days, English teachers were well compensated in Japan. It was a jolly party, a Friday, I think, and they were off for the weekend. We had a lovely time until the check came, and it was announced that we would divide it evenly--this, it turned out, was how the teachers always did it. Did we complain? I don't remember; I think we were too embarrassed to point out the obvious. Someone figured out how much everyone owed, and we Greenpeacers grimly ponied up our portion of the bill, helping to pay for everyone else's sushi and sashimi and sake and Sapporo.

And then we left, abruptly. Quick excuses, we would not be coerced into staying, we were out the door. Except Alfred. 

Alfred stayed, and partied on with the oblivious teachers, which the rest of us, back in our apartment, hungrily fixing dinner while bitterly complaining, could scarcely believe. It seemed to me that Alfred often had a unique take on a given situation, but this time he seemed practically a turncoat, willing to party on, spending more money that we couldn't afford. 


Our pal, Alfredo
Hours later, Alfred arrived back home, and took a seat, asking, "Why'd you all leave so soon?"

"Why did we leave?! Why did you stay?" I demanded. 

"They were really nice--" he tried, which caused the rest of us to boil up in indignation all over again.

But Alfred insisted, "No, no. I thought they were really very nice people." And then he began pulling yen out of his pockets. Bill after bill, from first one pocket then another and another.

The teachers, it turned out, had been puzzled by our abrupt departure, and had wheedled the reason out of amicable Alfred. As he explained our financial circumstances, so different from their own that it hadn't occurred to them to wonder why we'd eaten so little, they responded by pulling out bills and showering him with them.

"No, no!" Alfred showed us how he'd protested, while nonetheless accepting all the bills that were pushed on him.

The amount totaled far more than we'd spent, adding nicely to our budget for the rest of the month. We marveled over our change of luck--and over the fact that sometimes, you need a Alfred in your group.

(Want to read more about Greenpeace days? Click on the "Search this Blog" box to the right and enter the word Greenpeace.)  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday's Nature Quote


Do you know a cure for me?
Why yes, he said, I know a cure for everything. Salt water.
Salt water? I asked him.
Yes, he said, in one form or another, sweat, tears, or the salt sea.

~ Isak Dinesen

Friday, January 11, 2013

Weekend Haiku & Limericks


Your challenge: write a haiku or limerick featuring one of the subjects discussed here in the past seven days: tailed frogs, or something from Monday's nature quote. Feel free to mine the comments, too.

Post your haiku or limericks in the comments, below. Remember the pattern of a haiku is:

First, 5 syllables,
the second line has seven.
And 5 at the end.

A limerick is a wee bit more complicated. Here's one description.

Please post your haiku or limerick in the comments, below.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Tailed Frog: Or are you just glad to see me?

photo by Mokele

The fact that females lack the "tail" that this species is named for should give you a hint that this protuberance is not really a tail after all. The male tailed frog is the only amphibian in the Northern Hemisphere that has an external copulatory organ.

A frog sporting something akin to a penis seems strange until you consider the habitat of the tailed frog. You won't find them lazing about in some backwater pond or lake here in the Pacific Northwest. No, they inhabit rushing mountain streams, where the usual froggy fertilization technique of sperm released over a cluster of eggs would be swiftly washed away. This species' method of mating may be unorthodox for amphibians, but a tailed frog's gotta do what a tailed frog's gotta do.

Internal fertilization isn't the only lifestyle difference found in tailed frogs. They have no vocal sacs (maybe because they'd be unable to outcompete the singing of their rivers) and, correspondingly, no eardrums (the round membranes on either side fo the head, obvious in many frog species).

The tailed frog belongs to what is considered the most primitive of frog families, and you'd have to tramp around New Zealand streams to find its closest relatives. Which, by the way, I would totally love to do. 

How about you?


Monday, January 7, 2013

Friday, January 4, 2013

Weekend Haiku & Limericks


Your challenge: write a haiku or limerick featuring one of the subjects discussed here in the past seven days: Oregon grape, or something from Monday's nature quote. Feel free to mine the comments, too.

Post your haiku or limericks in the comments, below. Remember the pattern of a haiku is:

First, 5 syllables,
the second line has seven.
And 5 at the end.

A limerick is a wee bit more complicated. Here's one description.

Post your haiku or limerick in the comments, below.             

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Oregon Grape

No need to take that name too seriously--these shrubs are found outside of Oregon and those grapes are really berries. 

photo by brewbooks
Still, it's a good plant to know if you spend any time rambling around Pacific Northwest forests, or are looking for a good native landscaping plant. 

Even during the winter, Oregon grape displays its shiny, dark green leaflets. Their shape gives the plant its alternative common name, Oregon holly.

In the late summer or fall, some of those leaflets blush a pretty red; in spring, fragrant clusters of bright yellow flowers show up, which will evolve into the bluish-purple berries.

And yup, the berries are edible, but tart. Some native people ate them, often mixing them with sweeter berries. Many tribes boiled the roots for a yellow pigment used to dye beargrass for basket-making. The boiled roots were also used to treat coughs, stomach upset, or venereal disease. Today, herbalist still use the plant to help fight infections and strengthen the immune system.

Have you ever tried the berries? Or made them into jelly?