In February 1996, a 300-foot long Japanese freighter collided with another ship off St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. The collision resulted in a significant spill of bunker fuel that killed close to 1,000 birds.
One of the lucky survivors was a male king eider - Federal Band Number 1347-54921. He was one of 148 king eiders rescued and rehabilitated by International Bird Rescue (IBR) during the logistically complex event.
Every oil spill incident presents unique challenges. During the Pribilof Islands Spill, rescuers had to contend with freezing temperatures, snow and ice, and the 800 miles that separated the remote island from the rehabilitation center in Anchorage.
Another major challenge unique to this event was the rehabilitation of the heavy-bodied and heavily insulated eiders. International Bird Rescue's Jay Holcomb recalls how, after being cleaned of the oil, the eiders had to be kept in pools of ice water - "so cold you couldn't hold your hand in it for long," and even then they would pant.
Overall, the sea ducks adapted very well to captive life, according to Holcomb, and went through the rehabilitation process surprisingly quickly. Nearly 80% of the oiled eiders survived. On March 14, 1996, a group of 24 eiders was transported back to St. Paul Island and released.
Trevor Peterson with the banded eider.
Just recently, IBR found out that one of those eiders was recovered earlier this year - Band Number 1347-54921
On January 15th, just after first light, one of the kings was taken by a hunter. Estimated to be 17 years old, the bird was near the end of its lifespan. He had lived a long life, wild and free, thanks to the heroic measures taken to save it in 1996.
Should he have been euthanized, instead?
Every once in awhile the rehabilitation of oiled wildlife is criticized, claiming it more humane to euthanize the animals then put them through the cleaning process. What critics often fail to see is that they share a conviction with those they denounce - to do no harm - unaware of the processes in place that assure balance between science and compassion, and that many, many animals are euthanized because carers know the animal would suffer unfairly.
For wild bird rehabilitators, marking their patients with numbered leg-bands upon release helps them track their success.
"One of the best indications that our methods work," says Holcomb, "is when we get reports of rehabilitated animals thriving years after being released. This king eider is an example of that. But," he cautions, "not enough rehabilitators conduct post release studies."
Professional rehabilitation has come long way in the last 40 years.