There has been recent media chatter regarding the rescue and treatment of fish oiled Brown Pelicans and other birds by Bird Ally X at Humboldt Wildlife Care Center. A recent opinion piece in the North Coast Journal, “Bird by Bird“, asked outright if “we should be scrubbin’ these birds?” In the week since its publication BAX staff has had to field this question repeatedly, from those who are volunteering their time, from community leaders, and from those who would like to see this issue swept under the rug.
The most important point is that this crisis was caused by improper fish waste disposal that can be tracked directly to the discharge pipes and infrastructure at Shelter Cove and Crescent City. The harbor districts with jurisdiction over these cleaning tables had been made aware of this problem the previous year. Yet nothing was done in the intervening months before the Young of the Year Pelicans arrived this summer. Federal law prohibits harming Brown pelicans and other wildlife. State law prohibits discharging any substance harmful to fish, plants, birds or mammals into any State water. The discharge pipe at Shelter Cove, an Area of Special Biological Significance, and the cleaning station outflow in Crescent City have contaminated hundreds of pelicans and killed many more.
Fish oil and petroleum are similar in how they compromise a bird’s waterproofing, leading to hypothermia and emaciation. Unless rescued these birds die. Fish oil however does not cause internal damage. The health problems petroleum spill victims suffer that cause disruption in their reproductive cycles are due to ingesting hydrocarbons, not the rehabilitation process. The Pelicans we are treating need to be washed and fed. Very little else is wrong with them. We have no reason to believe that this calamity will have a deleterious impact on their future breeding success. To suggest otherwise is misleading.
Rehabilitators working with Brown Pelicans in California have been banding these birds before release for the last 20 years. Still, band returns, usually found when a bird dies, are not very reliable for post-release survival data… once banded, very few birds are ever seen again. Other post-release studies have their own problems – radio telemetry devices can be a problem for plunge-diving species. In fact most methods of tracking wildlife post-release can be antithetical to the goals and principles of wildlife rehabilitation, which seeks to return wildlife, injured or orphaned anthropogenically, as closely to their condition pre-injury as possible. The ethical ground that we stand on in order to intervene in the lives of wild animals is our commitment to this return. While post-release data can provide information that may help us improve the care we provide, these studies must be designed to be as non-invasive as possible, ensuring they do not add to the simple risk of a free and wild life.
The question of whether or not to treat an injured animal is glib. It fails to imagine the actual world. What is the alternative? Let them suffer and die from their injuries? Capture and euthanize?
Wildlife rehabilitation professionals, including those of us at Bird Ally X, spend a great deal of time reviewing practices and improving care. Our experiences and results pre-release are certainly a good indication of our likely success post-release. Unless we attempt to provide care there is no learning. To propose that wildlife rehabilitation should not be attempted because not enough biologists have studied its efficacy is disingenuous. Such a proposition poses as science while rejecting the practice that advances knowledge. Such a proposition leaves no room for action, nor does it allow for progress, or a difference, to be made.
In alliance with Brown Pelicans and all wildlife,
co-director, Bird Ally X
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Bird Ally X
PO Box 1020
Arcata CA 95518