Natural Oil Seep Prompts Bird Rescue in Calif.

Nearly 50 oiled birds have been in care this month at International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) after being coated with oil in a natural seep event along the Southern California coast.

Since January 6, 2011, IBRRC has received 28 Western Grebes, 18 Common Murres, a Common Loon, a Pacific Loon and a Clark’s Grebe.

IBRRC receives many birds that are contaminated with natural seep oil in our rehabilitation clinics year round. Birds are often severely impacted by this heavy, sticky oil, and it presents numerous challenges to our rehabilitation staff.

Oil seeps occur naturally all along the coast of California, notably in the Santa Barbara Channel near Coal Oil Point. This area emits about 5,280 to 6,600 gallons of oil per day. Natural seeps have been active for hundreds to thousands of years and have been documented by early explorers and by coast-dwelling Chumash Indians who used the oil in many ways including waterproofing baskets and constructing wooden canoes.

Impact to Birds

Oil can be lethally harmful to seabirds—particularly to diving birds that spend a great deal of time on the surface of the water where the oil sits. It interferes with the birds’ ability to maintain their body temperature by impairing the natural insulation and waterproofing properties of their feathers, which can result in loss of body weight, as their metabolisms try to combat the cold, and death from hypothermia. Oiled birds often beach themselves in this weakened state, and consequently become easy prey for other animals.

Preparing for Natural Seep Oiled Birds

Each bird that is impacted by natural seep oil is part of a larger population, but we know that every one is important in its own right and deserves the best possible care. We also know, from 40 years of experience, to anticipate these birds every year, with the largest number of birds coming in during the winter months. At this time of year, storms tend to move seep oil around while large numbers of migratory birds are utilizing offshore areas as their feeding grounds. Since their arrival at our rehabilitation clinics is predictable, we have endeavored to schedule our international interns around the birds’ arrival so that our trainees can be immersed in the complexities of oiled bird rehabilitation. The interns get invaluable, one-of-a-kind experience and the birds get the highest quality care.

Who pays for their care?

IBRRC has received natural seep oiled birds since our inception in 1971. As this is considered a “natural” event, with no responsible party, IBRRC and other wildlife rehabilitation organizations rely on the public to help cover the costs of caring for these birds. In recent years California’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) has generously provided some funding, however, the remaining cost is substantial in stormy years like this one when more natural seep oil is dispersed along the coast.