Oil from a tanker that sank in Russia’s Kerch Strait on Sunday killed some 30,000 seabirds. Last week, 500 birds died in an oil spill from a tanker crash in San Francisco Bay, and wildlife rescuers are still working to rehabilitate another 700 coated in oil. How do you save an oiled bird?
With Pedialyte and Dawn soap. Contaminated birds arrive at rescue centers stressed from human contact and hypothermic. Oil clots when it gets on a seabird’s plumage and destroys the airtight and waterproof insulation of the feathers. The bird will preen to try to get rid of the oil, but this incessant—and ineffectual—grooming only makes matters worse: Birds become so focused on the task that they become dehydrated, and the preening behavior can cause them to ingest toxic levels of the oil. At this point, the only way to save the animal is to feed it a liquid mixture of vitamins and medicine and, when it’s stable enough, wash its feathers with dish soap.
Before rescuers can begin to remove oil from a bird, they must ensure that it is not too weak to survive the traumatic washing process, which can take up to an hour. Rehabilitators immediately feed newly collected birds (through a tube to its stomach) a rehydrating formula like Pedialyte mixed with ToxiBan, an antidote that helps the birds excrete ingested oil from their systems. To gauge the extent of contamination, rescue center staffers also take blood and feather samples. Any birds judged too weak to survive a full cleaning are euthanized; the others can be kept for up to five days until they are healthy enough to clean.
When it’s time to wash the bird, specially trained workers use a solution of about 1 percent dish soap and very warm water that’s been softened to remove any minerals that might hinder lathering. (To prevent hypothermia, the temperature of the solution should match the animal’s body temperature—in birds, about 103 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.) Over the years, rescue organizations have tried different detergents, acetone, and powered chalk to remove oil from wildlife, but they’re most likely to use Dawn, which they receive in large donations from Proctor and Gamble.
To clean off an oiled bird, one person immerses its body in a tub, and a second bathes it with the soapy water. Once the water in the first tub becomes dirty, the pair continues the process in a neighboring tub, changing again and again until oil from the bird’s feathers no longer dirties the water. Up to 15 tubs can be used for a single animal; washing a bird the size of a pelican might take 300 gallons of water. To clean sensitive areas around the head and eyes, staff use a Waterpik-like device filled with the soap solution, and they remove caked oil with soft toothbrushes or cotton swabs. Freshly rinsed birds then sit in a pen under pet-grooming dryers, where they resume preening to re-establish the alignment of their feathers.
Birds stay at rescue sites until they’re ready to be released into the wild. Usually, it takes three to 10 days for a bird to recover its normal body temperature, weight, and feeding behaviors. Survival rates vary depending on the oil spill. In some cases, they can be as low as 25 percent or 50 percent; in others, rescuers can save every bird that they collect.
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Explainer thanks Karen Benzel of the International Bird Rescue and Research Center.