Cozy tops give small birds a chance
by Holly Hartman
"They look so cute. You can just see their heads and little flippers sticking out."
Oil spills are some of the most challenging environmental disasters. These toxic spills pollute the ocean, often injuring and killing animals who live there. Birds and mammals need to be captured, cleaned, and given medical treatment to have a chance of survival. Rescue workers must act quickly—and sometimes creatively.
Birds in Need
In January 2000 an oil spill near Phillip Island, Australia, threatened the tiny penguins who live there. The penguins' home was already at risk—in the past 80 years, the penguins have lost more than ¾ of their Phillip Island breeding area, mostly as a result of human actions.
Rescue workers at the Phillip Island Nature Park tried different ways to keep the penguins warm and to stop them from swallowing the deadly oil. Dressing the penguins in doll sweaters proved to be the most successful technique.
Soon, news of the penguins' need for sweaters spread via the Internet. Knitters in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States downloaded penguin sweater patterns and set to work. Some got very excited, adding special touches, like little bows. Others knitted sweaters in the colors of their favorite sports teams.
Why Dress for Success?
The birds' shiny feathers are coated in natural oils that keep them warm and waterproof in the icy waters. The crude oil from the spill destroys the penguins' natural oils. When this happens, the birds cannot protect themselves from the cold.
To make matters worse, penguins preen—they clean and smooth their feathers using their beaks. If a penguin preens after an oil spill, it will swallow poisonous oil, and probably die.
The wool sweaters keep in the penguins' body heat, and prevent them from being poisoned by the oils.
The tiny Phillip Island penguins—known as Fairy Penguins, or Little Penguins—are only half as tall as the famous Emperor Penguins of Antarctica. In fact, they are the smallest penguins in the world.
Their sweaters are about 9 inches high and 4 inches wide, with openings for the head and flippers. The sweaters must be pure wool to provide enough warmth for the penguins.
"They look so cute," said Pat Gallup, who coordinated a Canadian effort to make sweaters. "You can just see their heads and little flippers sticking out."
The Tides of Fashion
So if you visited Phillip Island a year from now, would you see groups of little penguins in sweaters swimming along? No—the sweaters aren't forever.
After the penguins are cleaned and dressed in the sweaters, they are put in salt-water pools at the rehabilitation center. As they swim and regain their strength, the salt water destroys the wool. By the time the penguins are ready to return to the ocean, their natural oils will have come back, and they can go home dressed only in their feathers.
Thanks to the hard work of volunteers, the Phillip Island Nature Park now has more penguin sweaters than penguins who need sweaters. But all involved hope that this unique effort will inspire ways to help other marine wildlife.