Celebrating the wildlife releases of the PAWS Wildlife Center
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by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
As Dr. John Huckabee approached the water, the Common Murre in his hands became visibly excited. The water was only about 20 feet away, and Dr. Huckabee was walking reasonably fast, but the bird seemed to take issue with the pace of his transport. His small webbed feet paddled frantically in the air as he stretched his neck towards the beckoning freedom of the Pacific.
His feathers covered in oil, this Common Murre (along with three others) came ashore in Westport.
Before their beaching, the four murres had encountered a small oil slick. The slick was likely not the result of an oil spill, but rather an intentional dumping of oily water from the bilge of a ship far offshore. Although these events are not headline grabbers of the Exxon Valdez variety, they are no less destructive to the unfortunate animals that encounter them. Certainly the result for all four of these murres would have been death, had not a caring individual intervened and rescued them from the beach. Even though the birds were found fairly soon after their exposure to the oil, only three of the four would ever see the ocean again.
After being washed, the murres regained their buoyancy and original color.
The three remaining murres were washed thoroughly and all traces of oil were removed from their feathers. They were not at all happy with the bathing process, but seemed relieved by the results when they were placed in a pool to find that their feathers once again repelled water. But a pool is no substitute for open ocean, and the murres continually protested their captivity both vocally and physically during the remainder of their stay. To the relief of the PAWS staff, they did not go on a hunger strike, and all three birds were eating at least some of the fish that was offered to them. Even so, they required supplemental tube feeding to help increase their weight, and by the time release day arrived on January 25th the murres were more than a little anxious to separate themselves from their human caregivers.
Dr. John Huckabee releases a formerly oiled murre at Westhaven State Park near Westport.
This scene repeated itself with the second murre. Feet paddled frantically, the head and neck strained towards the water, wings flapped, and the bird noticeably relaxed once it had been returned to its element. The third murre I released myself, and his behavior was a bit different than the other two. Rather than strain towards the ocean, he stared directly at my face as I walked him down the beach. In that moment, I was extremely glad that murres have short necks as I'm sure he meant to defend himself with his sharp-pointed bill. But his urge to fight was quickly replaced by the urge for flight as he was lowered into the water. All three birds put several hundred yards between themselves and the shore before getting a running start on the water's surface and taking to the air.
I can't imagine how horrifying the experience of being oiled must be to a seabird. They are covered in a sticky toxic substance, they are forced to leave the safety of the water, and the only tool they have with which to clean themselves is their beak. Try as they might they cannot remove the substance from their feathers and they even end up swallowing some of it during the attempt. Death is inevitable without intervention.
As I left the beach I sincerely hoped that none of the three birds that had just been released would ever have to suffer such an ordeal again. I was acutely aware, however, as I started the truck in which I had transported the birds that the danger was not likely to go away any time soon.
Wildlife Release tally: January 8 to January 21, 2003
Wildlife Release tally: 2003
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