A few years ago, while visiting Midway, I found a Laysan albatross covered with thick, black stuff resembling tar.
The bedraggled bird stood on a rocky outcrop, forlornly rubbing its beak up and down its wings in a vain attempt to clean the filthy feathers.
"What is that sticky stuff?" I asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge manager as he examined the bird.
"Probably bunker or waste oil either spilled or dumped at sea.
When the birds dive through it to get a fish, they get covered. We see it pretty often."
"Can we wash it off?"
He shook his head.
"We've not had much success at cleaning birds this soiled," he said. "We stress them in a soapy bath for hours, then they die anyway. I think it's best to just leave it in peace."
Every day the bird got sicker and weaker.
I volunteered several times to try washing it, but the experienced manager remained firm.
He had seen many such cases in Alaska and was convinced washing would only torture the bird.
Eventually the albatross died, its black-streaked body a stark testimony to the fact that unreported oil spills in the open ocean are both common and damaging.
More recently, at Tern Island, I saw another oiled bird, a masked booby. A different U.S. Fish and Wildlife manager examined the bird, then carried it to the laundry room.
"Let's try to help it," he said.
I rolled up my sleeves. But I soon learned that washing oiled birds is much harder in practice than in theory.
At first, we used the small amount of dilute detergent recommended in a manual about cleaning oiled wildlife.
Forget it. The oil was like glue to the bird's feathers. So we added a little more. No good. Eventually, we poured detergent straight from the bottle onto the feathers, massaged it in, then picked off pellets of pitch.
After a couple of hours, four tired people and one miserable masked booby were covered with oil, soap and water.
Finally, even though the bird was still dirty, we gave up and rinsed it off.
Then we fed it via a tube inserted down its throat. After a rest in a quiet corner, we took it outside and let it go.
The booby still looked terribly dirty, but was preening like mad. A few hours later, it flew away.
We cheered and congratulated one another.
Although we never knew what happened to the bird, we preferred to be optimistic and considered it a save. Now I wonder.
Two new studies about oiled sea birds look at the outcome of such washed sea birds.
It's not good news. Even when fully rehabilitated (washed, fed and rested), oiled sea birds have short life spans and usually fail to breed.
One California researcher looked at brown pelicans treated after spills in 1990 and 1991.
Only about 10 percent of the washed pelicans could be found later.
Another study shows that smaller sea birds in similar circumstances have an even lower survival rate than the pelicans.
The researchers studying oiled bird outcomes aren't recommending dumping programs aimed at washing and feeding oiled marine animals. But it may be worth considering.
Treating 800 birds and a few hundred sea otters after the Exxon Valdez oil spill cost $41 million.
Perhaps that money would be better spent on preventing oil spills in the first place.