Wednesday, January 29th, 2003

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
Impatient Return
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.

Oiled Murre

His feathers covered in oil, this Common Murre (along with three others) came ashore in Westport.

Sixteen days prior, this murre and three others had been forced to abandon the water when the feathers they depend on to keep them warm, dry, and buoyant had suddenly stopped serving their purpose. To a murre with clean and well-maintained feathers, water is safety. To a murre with severely compromised feathers, water can be deadly. No amount of preening would restore the murres' feathers to a functional state, so in desperation they had struggled onto a beach near Westport to avoid death by drowning or hypothermia. Once on the beach, their odds for survival did not improve. They had escaped the immediate danger of drowning, but they still faced possible hypothermia, starvation and predation. To make matters worse, the substance that had compromised their buoyancy and insulation was now working its way through their digestive tract. It had been ingested while the birds were preening their feathers.

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.

Washed Murres

After being washed, the murres regained their buoyancy and original color.

On January 9th the murres were admitted to the PAWS Wildlife Center. Two of the birds were more heavily oiled than the others, and a more consistent but far less appealing solid black had replaced their usual black and white color pattern. All four murres were given a thorough physical examination after which they were tube fed a substance containing activated charcoal to absorb any remaining petroleum in their systems. It was already too late for one of the birds, however, and his condition deteriorated until he died a few short days after being admitted. Intestinal hemorrhaging due to oil ingestion was given as the probable cause of death.

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.

Murre Release

Dr. John Huckabee releases a formerly oiled murre at Westhaven State Park near Westport.

So the murre's impatience with the speed at which Dr. Huckabee was approaching the water was not without cause. In addition to all of the frightening experiences he and his companions had suffered in the preceding weeks, the birds had also just endured a 3.5 hour drive to arrive at their release site. By the time Dr. Huckabee reached the water and bent down to release the murre, the bird could not leave his hands fast enough. Once freed, he flapped his wings a few times to propel himself forward on the surface of the water. He then dunked himself and shook his feathers, letting the saltwater flow over his entire body. The water quickly beaded and ran off of his back leaving a clean dry surface. I don't know if the bird consciously appreciated the significance of that fact, but I certainly did.

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

1 Fox Sparrow
1 Varied Thrush
4 Glaucous-winged Gulls
1 Western Grebe
1 Pacific Loon
1 Merlin
1 Raccoon
1 Virginia Opossum

Wildlife Release tally: 2003
13 animals

All rights reserved. 2003 Progressive Animal Welfare Society