Sunday, 30 January 2011

Dealing with Oiled Birds

May 27, 2010 Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen
Pelicans are at Risk from Oil. - Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen
Pelicans are at Risk from Oil. - Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen
For disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, protocol has been developed to deal with oiled birds.
In the wake of the BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, thousands of volunteers signed up with local wildlife facilities across the Gulf states to help with oiled birds. However, washing oiled birds in Dawn dishwashing liquid requires more than a sink and a few well-meaning volunteers. Responses to large ecological disasters such as the BP spill are complicated and only somewhat successful.

Who Washes the Birds?

California's International Bird Rescue Research Center and its affiliates are considered the foremost experts on the effect of oil on wildlife. In the case of the BP Gulf disaster, a group called Tri State Bird Rescue and Research in Delaware was contracted by BP to front the rescue of affected wildlife. Once oiled wildlife is verified, Tri State arrives on the scene, enlisting local wildlife rehabilitators, veterinarians, and Fish and Wildlife officials as needed.
Anybody dealing with oil or oiled wildlife must be certified in "hazmat," or hazardous material handling, also called OSHA training (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). Remember, oil is toxic to humans as well as wildlife. According to Tri State, three to five people are required for safe washing and rinsing of an oiled bird. Cleaning a single bird can take up to 300 gallons of water, which must retain a temperature of about 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The oily water must be disposed of as hazardous waste.

A great deal of space is required as well for the care and housing of the birds. After the initial examination and washing, the birds require feeding and supportive care until they are able to be released.

How Many Birds are Saved?

The birds must be stabilized before washing. The process of being oiled, caught, handled, and forcibly bathed and rinsed proves extremely stressful for wildlife and a bird which is dehydrated, emaciated, or suffering from trauma is unlikely to survive the ordeal. Though the IBRRC's website quotes a 90% success rate, they do not mean that all the birds they rescue survive, as many of those birds never made it to the washing station. For example, according to the Fish and Wildlife Report for June 5, 2010 in the areas affected by the BP oil rig explosion, 177 birds were taken in alive. Only 23 of those birds were released.
Other factors, such as whether the oil was crude or weathered, also affects whether a bird will survive contact with oil.
The chemical dispersant used to break up the oil in the BP spill, a chemical called Corexit, is also toxic, known to kill fish and shrimp. Rescuers may not be able to tell that a bird has Corexit on its feathers or in its stomach, as it is not visible like oil, nor does a test for Corexit exist.

What are the Effects of Oil on Birds?

According to Tri State, the effects of oil on birds are environmental, external and internal. Oil contaminates the bird's food sources and nesting habitats and reduces reproductive success though reduced viability of eggs. Birds most affected by oil spills are birds that live or feed in seawater such as ducks, loons, grebes, herons, terns, gulls, pelicans, gannets, and osprey. Oil disrupts the waterproofing, insulating ability and flight capacity of feathers. Internally, oil affects the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas and liver. Oil irritates mucus membranes such as eyes, mouth, and lungs.

What If I See an Oiled Bird?

Call 866-557-1401 to report oiled wildlife. Do not attempt to rescue the bird yourself unless you are trained and certified to handle oiled birds. Signs that a bird has been contaminated with oil include visible oil on feathers and skin, cracking and bleeding of skin, feather loss, shivering, inflammation of eyes, respiratory distress, black or green droppings, inability to stand, weakness, incoordination, tremors or seizures.