Shampooing to Stop Oil Spill Bird Deaths

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 21, 2004
Every year at least half a million water birds die from encounters with
spilt oil, according to Jay Holcomb, executive director of the
International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fairfield, Calfornia. But
on occasion rescue teams arrive on scene in time to scrub the birds'
feathers clean and prevent calamity.

Take, for example, the response when approximately 1,300 tons of oil spilled from the bulk ore carrier Treasure. The ship sank in the Atlantic Ocean in June 2000 about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Cape Town, South Africa.

Peter Barham, a scientist with Bristol University in England, was part of the international rescue effort. He said approximately 20,000 African penguins were covered in oil from the spill.

"It took about six weeks, the teams working day and night, to clean all those birds," Barham said in an interview with the radio program Pulse of the Planet.

Rescue teams also temporarily relocated 20,000 additional penguins from an island in the oil slick's path. In terms of animal numbers, the rescue effort was the largest ever attempted.

Experts estimate 90 percent of the rescued birds survived. Today the African penguin population is thought to be 19 percent larger than it would have been without the effort, according to University of Cape Town researchers who monitor the birds.

Oiled Death

Holcomb, of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, said the cleanup success at the Treasure oil spill is an exception, not the rule.

He said penguins have several layers of fat to burn for energy and are relatively easy to manage in captive situations. During oil spills, these characteristics allow the birds to survive longer in the wild before rescue teams arrive and to cope with human handling.

"If they had been any other birds, we wouldn't have saved 50 percent of them," Holcomb said. Most oiled birds, he added, die from exposure to the cold before rescue workers have time to reach them.

When birds encounter spilt oil, the slimy substance strips feathers of their waterproofing nature. Holcomb explained that feathers are normally "aligned at a microscopic level like Velcro. They all hook together so tightly that water can't penetrate them."

Oil causes birds' feathers to mat together into separated clumps. This allows water to seep between the feathers and skin and exposes the animal to the elements. This usually causes birds to freeze to death, but it can also lead to overheating.

Oiled birds instinctively preen their feathers. When they do, the animals ingest toxins that damage internal organs.

The birds' focus on preening also diverts their attention from the essential tasks of eating and evading predators, Holcomb said. If exposure to the elements doesn't kill the birds, long-term health impacts or a predator will.

Millions of small oil spills, primarily from ships cleaning their bilges, go unreported and undetected each year. Such slicks kill hundreds of thousands of birds.

Off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, for example, some 300,000 birds die from oiling each year, according to Canadian government studies. Off the southern coast of South America, as many as 40,000 Magellanic penguins die from oiling, according to Holcomb.

Bird Cleaning

For birds to survive catastrophic oil spills like the Treasure, well-equipped bird-rescue crews must be mobilized quickly. Human handlers arrive with food and water.

Once the birds are stabilized, the cleaning process begins. The animals are placed in plastic dish tubs and, using a mixture of warm water and a dab of mild soap, rescue workers scrub the birds' feathers. For the eyes and ears, a water pick or toothbrush is used to avoid damaging sensitive organs.

"Really what we're doing is shampooing the birds. We do it vigorously, but they don't like to be handled. So we do it quickly—quickly but efficiently," Holcomb said.

Once scrubbed, the birds are rinsed with warm water, placed in cages with air dryers, and—after they're dry—released into a pool of warm water.

"They instantly want to bathe, get their feathers in order," Holcomb said. As part of the preening process, the birds rub a natural oil, which is secreted from a gland at the bottom of their tails, over their feathers. The oil acts as a conditioner.

When the birds regain a natural weight and blood values, they are released back into the wild. What happens next, for most species, is an open question. The technology to track wild birds is too invasive to deploy.

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