By Kylie Clatterbuck, Los Angeles Wildlife Center Manager
Late last month International Bird Rescue received the news that our friends at Santa Barbara Wildlife (SBW) were seeing an unusually large number of beached oiled birds along the coast near Ventura Harbor. Oiled birds can be a common occurrence this time of year due to the ocean’s natural oil seeps and the migrating birds who overwinter in Southern California waters. However by the end of February 2018, there were at least 11 live oiled Western Grebes captured during search and collection.
To ensure that we were dealing with natural oil seep, rather than an oil spill, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) was notified and transport was arranged to bring the birds down to Bird Rescue for evidence collection and primary care. In total, Bird Rescue received 18 oiled over the course of three days.
When working with oiled wildlife, samples are collected from each bird for chemical “fingerprinting” by the Petroleum Chemistry Lab of the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife; it was determined that the oil was in fact from a natural seep. Natural oil seep is common along the Southern California Coast and acts much like spilled oil.
Western Grebes spend the entirety of their lives in water, propelling themselves with their feet to hunt for fish. When a bird becomes oiled, it’s feather structure is compromised leaving them unable to remain waterproof, maintain internal temperature, or hunt for food. They also can sustain secondary injuries and burns as a result and will die unless rescued and the oil cleaned off by trained personnel.
When we received these birds, many of them were in poor body condition, extremely dehydrated, and heavily oiled. Medically stabilizing these birds before putting them through an extensive and stressful wash process is incredibly important. By giving the birds nutritional tube feedings and a warm environment, we were able to improve their condition quickly and wash the oil off within a few days of admittance. But that’s just the beginning…
The days after wash are spent tirelessly giving the birds access to water, assessing their waterproofing, and aiding the birds while drying any wet areas still remaining post wash. It’s a lot of work for the staff, but it’s even more work for the birds who need to preen their feathers all while living under the stress of an alien environment. These are wild animals that are affected by the stressors of human interaction, noise, and simply being out of water for several days.
After two weeks, we’re happy to report that most of the birds are already waterproof and living in one of our large pools! We will now be working on conditioning these birds for release back into the wild by improving their body condition and treating any injuries/wounds they may have acquired during the ordeal of becoming oiled.