FAQ: How Oil-Covered Birds Are Cleaned
On Friday, April 30, a boat crew rescued the BP oil spill’s first known avian victim, a northern gannet, smothered in oil that could strip it of its insulation or poison it if ingested. The northern gannet swam to the vessel and hopped onto a pole the workers held out. The oiled bird, surely the first of many, is now recuperating at a BP-funded rehabilitation center staffed by Tristate Bird Rescue and Research and the California-based International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC).
Jay Holcomb, IBRRC’s executive director, is on site. Yesterday he said rescue crews were waiting for the rain to clear before looking for more birds. In terms of where the northern gannet and other avian victims rescued from the disaster will be let loose once they’re rehabilitated, Holcomb said he’s “not sure where we are going to release them at this point. It all depends on the spill.” Holcomb and the other bird rehabilitation experts on the ground are preparing to care for potentially thousands of birds.
From how oiled birds are cleaned to avian survival rates from previous spills, IBRRC provides offers in-depth answers to many questions about oil spills and birds. The group has responded to more than 100 oil spills, including Exxon Valdez in 1989, and cared for more than 140 different species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
Do you wash birds as soon as you get them?
No! Oiled birds often suffer from hypo or hyperthermia. Many haven't eaten in days and are often dehydrated and exhausted by the time we capture them. They must be stabilized before attempting cleaning. Stabilized birds have a much higher survival rate than birds that are not stabilized prior to being washed. A bird can safely be held as much as 5 days before being cleaned.
How long does it take to wash a bird?
The time varies depending on the size of the bird and the amount of oil on it. Obviously, a heavily oiled pelican will take much longer to wash than a lightly oiled duck. The average wash and rinse time is approximately 45 minutes.
Soaping up an oiled Grebe. Photo: Russ Curtis, courtesy IBRRC
What do you use to wash birds?
We use "Dawn" dish washing liquid. IBRRC has conducted research on most of the commonly available cleaning agents and "Dawn" meets all the criteria we have established for appropriate cleaning agents. Those criteria are the ability to remove most oils, effectiveness at low concentrations, non-irritating to the skin and eyes, rapid removal from feathers (rinsing), and is easily accessible. Procter and Gamble now donates all "Dawn" detergent to IBRRC and other rehabilitation organizations.
How do you restore the natural oil to a bird's feathers after washing?
We don't! Bird feathers are naturally waterproof but after washing, each feather must be aligned properly so that water cannot seep through the microscopic barbes and barbules that are part of the vane of each feather. Each feather is made up of microscopic barbs and barbules that hook together like "Velcro". Once hooked together, they become a tight waterproof barrier. Each properly aligned feather overlaps another like shingles on a roof creating a temperature controlled barrier. Birds align their feathers by preening (combing their feathers) during which they distribute secretions or waxes from the uropygial (preen) gland located at the base of the tail throughout the plumage. Remember, bird feathers are already naturally water repellent. The secretions from the uropygial gland help in the long term maintenance of feathers by keeping the feathers supple so alignment can be maintained.
How much water does it take to clean a bird?
The amount of water used depends on the size of the bird, how badly it is oiled and the bird. One pelican can use as many as 300 gallons of water. During the "Tenyo Maru" oil spill we cleaned 700 birds and used 1,000,000 gallons of water. Much of that was in the pools we need to swim the birds after they have been cleaned.