Frequently Asked Questions: Treating Oiled Birds

Q: Do you wash contaminated birds as soon as you get them?

A: Not usually. It depends on the contaminant. (Diesel fuel often requires birds to be rinsed quickly to remove volatile compounds to prevent deeper burns). Oiled birds often suffer from hypo or hypethermia. 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 five days before being cleaned. See also: How Oil Affects Birds

Photo of oiled being cleaned by International Bird Rescue response team
Cleaning an oiled bird at the 2010 Deepwater Gulf Oil Spill in Louisiana.

Q: How long does it take to wash a bird?

A: 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.

Q: What do you use to wash birds?

A: We use Dawn dish soap. International Bird Rescue 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, being 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 International Bird Rescue and other rehabilitation organizations.

See also: How Oil Affects Birds

Q: What happens to a bird’s feathers after washing?

A: Bird feathers are naturally waterproof but after washing, each feather must be aligned properly so that water cannot seep through to the body. 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 natural oils throughout the plumage. Remember, bird feathers are already naturally water repellent. These natural oil secretions help in the long-term maintenance of feathers by keeping the feathers supple so alignment can be maintained.

Q: How much water does it take to clean a bird?

A: 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 where the birds swim after they have been cleaned.

Q: If you have a lot of birds and enough volunteers why not wash the birds all night long?

A: In the early years at International Bird Rescue we did just that, until data analysis showed a marked increase in mortality of the birds washed after dark. We found that their stress is increased when their circadian rhythm is upset, just like ours. They also need plenty of rest and we have found that leaving them alone to sleep at night reduces mortality.

Q: Why do clean birds equal waterproof birds?

A: Jay Holcomb, International Bird Rescue’s past executive director, answers in this video using the example of Brown Pelicans affected by severe weather and heavy runoff during January 2010 storms in California. Waterproof birds “float high like a boat, and comfortable” – if their wings get wet, that’s when they sink, and succumb to hypothermia, meaning the bird becomes cold.

Q: Do the animals know that you are helping them?

A: No. They are wild animals and highly stressed by handling and captivity. Most likely they regard us as predators that are about to eat them. Although some species like penguins, pelicans and murres will act more friendly as they become accustomed to being fed fish by humans, they need space in order to feel comfortable when in the presence of their caretakers. Getting too close to them will result in a stressful situation and often times in painful bites to the “intruder.” Handling and viewing is only done when absolutely necessary in order to minimize stress.

Q: How many animals do you expect to treat in a spill?

A: As many as we receive, because every bird matters. It is impossible to know in advance how many birds will be impacted by an oil spill. We work with local state and federal biologists to look at what animals are in the area at the time of a spill and try to ascertain what species and how many of them may be exposed to oil. Then we plan for the worst and hope for the best.

King Eiders were cleaned of oil in 1996 after being flown to Anchorage from the Pribilof Islands. Photo © International Bird Rescue

Q: How long do birds have to stay in captivity?

A: The quickest a bird can be released is usually around five days, however most average up to 7 days in captivity. It all depends on the health and condition of each animal. Sometimes a bird will have an injury or illness prior to oiling and that will call for an extended stay in captivity. Our goal is always to get them in and out as soon as possible to reduce the effects of captivity.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in rehabilitating oiled wildlife?

A: There is not just one. Inadequate or no facilities at spill sites to properly care for the animals has historically been one of the biggest and consistent problems. In general, people don’t seem to realize that cleaning oiled birds is not just a simple laundry problem. For example, sea birds ingest oil and can suffer from the internal effects of oil, extending their stay in captivity. Young birds require special care and each species has its own diet and caging requirements. This all adds up to a lot of work and coordination that has to be done in a very short amount of time.

Q: How much does it cost to rehabilitate oiled birds?

A: The cost for wildlife rehabilitation will differ from spill to spill. For example the cost per bird during the “Exxon Valdez” oil spill was extremely high due to the costs per day for the many rescue vessels and the extended period of time we spent in Alaska. The modification of facilities on each spill adds to cost as well. Determining the cost per bird is difficult. It is unrealistic to take the overall cost of the rehabilitation program during a spill and divide it by the amount of birds in a spill to get the cost per bird. This is a common mistake that has been done with many oil spills that gives the impression of very high costs “per bird.” You must take all the variables in each situation that affect the cost and separate them out in order to gain an actual amount per bird. There is really no average amount.

Q: What is your survival rate?

A: The survival rate will differ with each oil spill because of all the factors that affect it. Some of those factors are the toxicity of the oil, how rapidly the birds are collected and stabilized, what condition the bird was in before it was oiled, and the species involved. We have had release rates as high as 100 percent and as low as 25 percent in the early years. We now average about 50-80 percent. Again, it depends on many variables and cannot be predicted.

Eiders released after treatment. © International Bird Rescue

Q: Where do you release them?

A: All rehabilitated animals are released in clean and oil free areas chosen by federal and state trustee agency personnel and International Bird Rescue. If the area that they were captured in is still oiled, then the animals are sometimes transported to more remote locations for release.

Q: How many of them live after they are released?

A: That’s still unclear. We band all of our released birds with U.S. Fish and Wildlife stainless steel bands. We get some returns on them but most of the birds we release live in remote regions and are never seen again. We have worked with avian specialists to fit rehabilitated birds with transmitters that allowed them to be monitored for a period of time. We plan on doing more post release studies in the future to help us determine the survival rate of oiled birds. Read: Oldest Known Banded King Eider Found 23 Years After Oil Spill Care

Q: Does International Bird Rescue handle other animals besides birds?

A: Yes. We have treated mammals such as raccoon, beaver, and muskrats and reptiles including snakes and turtles. Most of the animals we care for are seabirds, wading birds and waterfowl. We do not treat large marine mammals, since there are other groups who specialize in that area.

Q: Where do you work?

A: While International Bird Rescue is based in California, we work all over the world. International Bird Rescue has responded to over 230 oil spills and conducted a variety of trainings in 11 different states, two US territories and more than a dozen countries. We also have regional representatives based the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. We maintain a more than 25 member response team of highly trained and experienced wildlife rehabilitators, veterinarians and biologists. We have cared for over 140 different species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including threatened and endangered species. Our response team not only cares for the animals but it “manages” oiled wildlife rehabilitation efforts. This includes volunteer training and supervision, media interaction, etc.

Q: Do you come with your own supplies?

A: We bring some medical supplies and hard to locate items and equipment with us. Equipment that is difficult to obtain is stored at our center and other locations around the U.S. and is shipped to the spill site as needed. Other items are purchased during the spill.

Q: Why do you do it?

A: International Bird Rescue’s philosophy is that we all use oil or oil-related products in some form or another and as a species coexisting on this earth with other life forms we are responsible for the messes that we make.

Some wildlife management professionals may argue that cleaning oiled birds isn’t worth the cost and effort, as the impact on a species level is unclear. We feel it is best to have the technology available that can be applied to threatened and endangered species, if the time comes when large numbers of these birds are impacted with oil. Each bird helps us to improve the overall care that we provide. Even if this thinking cannot be accepted, what is the alternative? The public will not stand for wildlife agencies euthanizing oiled birds as they come ashore. Also, we know that oiled birds can be rehabilitated, and we maintain the belief that every life is valuable and that each animal is deserving of our care. In a world where life is not always respected and cherished we feel that preserving even the life of one bird sends an important message.