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Survival of a single oiled king eider proves next to nothing

Craig Medred
DickDaniels | carolinabirds.org image

San Francisco's Barefoot Gardener, Mark Russell, is feeling better about himself these days thanks to a story spun by International Bird Rescue in nearby Berkeley and played up by an Anchorage newspaper with its headquarters not all that far away in Sacramento. Russell sent me a note to crow, to use a cliché, which in this case seems appropriate.

"Hey Craig, did you see the eider-band return story?" the header on the email asked. The text went on to provide a link to the story and say this: "My work with these birds was typified by you as bunny hugging so I could feel good about myself. I hope your views are shifting with this and other success stories resulting from efforts like the one mounted to care for these king eiders."

Let me say, before I write another word, that I have nothing against bunny hugging or bunny huggers. I know some absolutely wonderful people who are bunny huggers. I have on occasion been accused of being a bit of one myself. On top of that, I think everyone should feel good about themselves. The only time I have any objection to people feeling good about themselves is when they engage in immoral acts to make themselves feel good or waste a lot of other people's time and money.

I don't much like the idea of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick making himself feel good by staging dog fights. And I still don't much like tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, being spent to torture oiled birds after oil spills so that some people can feel good about themselves. In this particular case, 165 oiled birds were shipped 750 miles east from St. Paul Island to Anchorage to be treated, a traumatic experience for the birds.

Why not save the suffering? 

Amazingly, 155 of them survived the big-city cleansing. Their reward was to be shipped 750 miles back to St. Paul Island and released. Sixteen years later, one of them was shot and killed. Shot legally, it must be added, by a duck hunter. All of which raises an obvious question: Why not shoot the birds immediately and save them the suffering?

That is what is done with badly oiled birds in other countries, but not here. Oh no, not in America, where we want to feel good about saving animals, other people, you name it. And hey, it does feel good.

All of which might be part of the reason nobody in government has the guts to stand up and say "no'' to wasting money and resources on the meaningless rescue -- or worse, the torture -- of short-lived birds or at least short-lived oiled birds. 

The role International Bird Rescue played in making front-page "news'' out of an king eider killed 10 months ago in a far-off corner of rural Alaska is pretty interesting. The shooting of a banded king eider did attract some attention in hunting circles when it was killed in January along the shore of remote St. Paul Island. Eiders make only limited visits to the lower 48 states. They breed in the Canadian arctic and primarily winter in the Aleutian Islands and along the coast of the eastern Canada provinces of Newfoundland-Labrador and Nova Scotia, though some of the birds get as far south as New York state in the east and the Alaska Panhandle in the west.

They are not, however, heavily hunted, and because of that little research is done on them. Because of the lack of research interest, very few eiders are banded, and the band is what attracted attention after this bird was first shot. Outdoor Life had a blog post, and there was some chatter in the community of waterfowl hunters about what a rare occurrence it was for someone to shoot a banded eider.

Months and months later, the bird organization picked up on the fact the band belonged to a bird it had "saved." Enter the Anchorage Daily News and the PR spinmeisters.

"King eider dies 16 years after rescue from oil spill,'' the newspaper headlined Monday after being told of this bird. The eider didn't just "die," of course; it was executed. But that's another matter.

The story reported on how the "shy, docile species known for extravagant mating plumage that makes males look like a colorful Picasso cubist painting'' was once horribly oiled, flown to Anchorage, saved, flown back to St. Paul, released, and lived 16 years -- no doubt joyously -- until "killed by a Bethel man in a legal commercial duck hunt off St. Paul Island on Jan. 15."

Well, not exactly. Commercial hunting of all waterfowl was banned by The Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918. The hunter in question was a sport hunter on a guided hunt. The reporter who wrote the story apparently didn't want to note the guides involved -- Alaskan Eider Outfitters -- for fear of providing them free advertising.

Neither was any attention paid to the irony of the duck being rescued so that it could later be shot. No, the focus of the story -- pushed by an organization that has the motto "every bird matters" -- was that "it's a big deal to know the duck lived for 16 years, at the far upper range of its life span....''

A payoff? 

But the story didn't stop there.

"Rescuers also contend the recovery of the king eider offers at least anecdotal proof that the cost and effort of rehabilitating oiled birds pays off, something critics have long questioned,'' the newspaper reported.

An "anecdotal proof?" As a glaring contradiction in terms, that one is right up there with the description of the late Timothy Treadwell as an "amateur bear expert." A self-proclaimed bear whisperer, Treadwell ended up dead and eaten because he failed to heed the advice of actual experts who advised him he was playing dangerous games by trying to make friends of the bears along Alaska's Katmai coast.

There is some of the amateur expert stuff at play in the eider story. All the banded and now-dead eider proved was that one eider lived 16 years after going through the trauma of the oil spill and human handling. But Bird Rescue's emeritus director Jay Holcomb wasn't content to stop there.

“The question is, do they survive? And is it equal to the time and money you're putting into them?" the newspaper quoted him as saying. “In this case, the answer is yes."

It is worth noting the story provided absolutely no information on how much "time and money'' was spent saving this eider. None, zero, zippo. There was, however, a government scientist called upon to buttress Holcomb's hokum. The story continues:

"Scientists caution against drawing conclusions based on a single bird. Still, a documented survivor more than 15 years after a spill is something,” said Paul Flint, a wildlife biologist who is now a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center. Flint was one of the original U.S. Fish and Wildlife responders to the spill and banded some birds himself.

"'The recovery of these birds so many years later tells us (the rescue) did work,' Flint said."

There's only one problem here. This isn't exactly what Flint said, because no competent scientist would say what Flint is reported to have said there. When contacted by Alaska Dispatch, Flint said he repeatedly told the reporter the survival of one bird proved -- anecdotally or otherwise -- that one bird survived. Nothing more. It tells no one anything about the whether the rescue effort was a wise expenditure of funds or not.

Costly rescue 

How much did it cost? "A lot," Flint said. "A lot."

He had no idea of the exact amount. He was never asked. He also had no idea of exactly how he ended up saying what he was quoted as saying.

"You have to understand I was somewhat misquoted in that article,'' he said. "You can infer absolutely nothing from this (eider).''

Flint said no matter how may times he tried to explain that or in what way, the reporter kept pushing for some meaning in the birds 16-year-survival. He doesn't argue that he might have ended up saying what he is quoted as saying. A skilled reporter can get someone to say almost anything. But the context, ah, the context is a different matter. The rescue, Flint admitted, "did work.

"It worked in this particular case for this one particular bird. For that one drake, he's pretty happy."

Or he was until he got shot, if birds experience happiness. Obviously, people do. The eider story made The Barefoot Gardener, who seems like a nice enough guy, happy. The story obviously made the reporter happy. Dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of others reading about this might have been made happy by the idea the rescue saved the eider, too.

Flint thinks it's all a little strange to try to read so much into one bird in a species where death is an everyday thing, but as a scientist there are some things he just doesn't get. Like why any of this was even news.

"It's old news,'' he said. "The bird was shot last January.''

Ah, but it would appear to be "news'' that it's history was finally discovered. When called by the Anchorage newspaper, Flint admits he was at first shocked to hear a banded eider had been shot at St. Paul. He told the reporter that was pretty interesting because another one had been shot there back in January. She called back later, he added, to report they were talking about the same eider.

You know the one that provided a nice cover photograph for the newspaper on Monday, courtesy of International Bird Rescue. The one we can all feel good about because it proved that bird rescue is a wonderful thing. The one that will help ensure money keeps flowing to International Bird Rescue. And that's what it's all about.

You only have to wonder if the newspaper got paid for the advertisement.

The author's views are his own and not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com