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."

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