UC DAVIS (US)—More oiled birds survive and reproduce than previously thought, so saving them is the appropriate action, according to a scientific review of all oiled-bird survival studies.

“Photos of extremely oiled pelicans in the Gulf spill have raised the question: ‘Are we helping these animals more by saving them, or by ending their suffering?’ says Michael Ziccardi, associate professor of veterinary medicine at University of California at Davis, who has responded to more than 45 spills and treated more than 6,500 oiled birds.

“It’s an entirely appropriate question to ask. I ask it myself every time I work in an oil spill. And my answer, based on our research and on caring for these injured birds throughout the world, is that we help them more by saving them.”

Certainly, some individual oiled birds are so sick that euthanasia is the right choice, medically, ethically, and ecologically, Ziccardi adds. But those cases typically account for a small percentage of birds brought alive to spill rescue centers.

“In our studies of oiled pelicans and coots in the mid-1990s, survival was not as successful as we would have liked,” says Dan Anderson, professor emeritus of wildlife, fisheries, and conservation biology.

“But there is some more encouraging research coming out lately on the survival rates of birds that received improved veterinary care.

“I would caution, though, that rehabilitation of oiled birds is not the solution to the conservation problem. It helps a small part of the population, even though I am personally concerned about saving individual pelicans from a strictly moral viewpoint.

“But this spill has permanently damaged the ecosystem where the birds and their descendants will live, and even the best veterinary care cannot overcome that obstacle. Only onsite restoration and conservation can, in the most optimistic view.”

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