how to clean oil off bird feathers

The work we do every day keeps International Bird Rescue prepared to meet the challenges of an oiled wildlife emergency.Many people think that the most important step in helping oiled birds is to wash the oil off. The truth is that oiled birds can die if well-meaning people, anxious to remove the oil from feathers, wash them immediately. The bird must be healthy enough to endure the extreme stress of the wash. The most important things to give oiled birds are nutrition, hydration and medical treatment in order to regain their strength before they are washed. These steps may take a day or longer.Our trained staff and volunteers use these criteria to decide when an animal is ready to be washed:

  • Good body condition or good weight gain
  • Excellent blood values
  • Active, alert behavior.
  • Because cleaning a bird is a stressful and life-threatening event, the goal is to wash each oiled bird only once, and it is crucial that it is healthy enough to handle the washing ordeal.

Once stable, oiled birds go through a series of tub washes with a low concentration of Dawn dishwashing liquid in clean water. Research was conducted on most of the commonly available cleaning agents and Dawn was the one that had the ability to remove most oils, was effective at low concentrations, non-irritating to the skin and eyes, rinsed quickly from feathers, and was easily accessible. Birds contaminated with tarry products may be pre-treated before their Dawn wash with a non-toxic soy oil derivative such as methyl soyate to make thick tar products more removable.

After washing, the bird is taken to a separate rinsing area where a special nozzle is used to completely rinse the solution from the feathers. The rinsing process is just as important as the wash, because any detergent or solution left on the feathers can impair the natural waterproofing process. Specially-designed spa nozzles are used that propel the water at sufficient pressure to remove all traces of detergent from the bird’s feathers.

After the wash and rinse, the cleaned bird is placed in a protective soft-bottomed pen equipped with modified commercial pet grooming dryers. As the bird rests comfortably under the grooming dryer, it will begin to preen its feathers back into place. The complete realignment of feathers in a tight overlapping pattern creates a natural waterproof seal.

The bird is given free access to food and is tube-fed a balanced diet to ensure optimal nutrition, lots of fluids, and vitamins. Rehabilitation specialists closely monitor its development to ensure ongoing health and safety.

The bird is put in a warm water therapy pool once it is totally dry, where it continues to groom and wash. Its capacity to float or swim, its level of general awareness, and its progress toward waterproofing are all continuously monitored. Until its waterproofing sufficiently improves and it can be graduated to a cold water pool, the bird will be repeatedly dried off and put back into the heated pool.

These are open-air diving pools where the bird can spend its entire life in the water and still feed, groom, and act normally. Every bird is closely observed by knowledgeable staff, which includes a wildlife veterinarian.

Because the bird is frequently too preoccupied to eat enough during the waterproofing process, nutritional support is maintained. The bird is given several days to rest and re-nourish itself after it is completely waterproof before being given the go-ahead for release.

During care, medical issues or wounds, such as chemical burns or wounds, may be discovered and treated accordingly.

When an oiled bird is deemed fully stable, healthy, and has perfect waterproofing, it is released. Before being released into the wild, an aquatic bird needs to be completely waterproof. Otherwise, it won’t make it. The bird needs to have appropriate weight and blood values for its species and demonstrate typical feeding, swimming, and diving behavior.

The bird is banded with a stainless steel U before being released. S. Geological Survey (USGS) leg band. This facilitates identification in the future and helps International Bird Rescue with its studies. Only areas free of oil are permitted to release it, with permission from both state and federal trustees. It might be taken to a more isolated area before being released if the area where it was captured is still oiled.

After the wash, volunteers hose the birds down. This is done against the feather grain, at up to 40 to 60 pounds of pressure per square inch in denser parts like the chest. It’s a powerful blast—about half the strength of a fireman’s hose—but birds can take it. Soon, feathers start behaving normally again. “This is where the magic happens,” says Callahan. “All of a sudden those downy feathers start to fluff up and repel water.”

The rehabbers aren’t quite done yet. The birds are relocated to chambers filled with paddle pools that mimic open waters. The birds begin their lives in pools with haul-outs, which allow them to exit the water and clean their feathers in the event that they detect a damp area in their down. Rehabbers should take extra precautions to dry them out before reentering the water if they experience any shivering at this point. Callahan observes, “Very soon you see birds staying in the pool all the time.” That’s when you know they’re approaching feather-readiness for the sea.

Oil is particularly dangerous for birds because it disrupts the finely tuned system that keeps them warm. To stay dry, all birds have a layer of downy feathers that trap warm air close to the skin. Visible contour feathers, made up of barbs and barbules crisscross on top to create a Velcro-like structure that encloses the downier layers. Oil breaks open this close-knit arrangement. “The barbs and barbules can no longer lock together, and water passes right through to the downy feathers,” Callahan says. Basically, it “opens a crack in the dry suit,” making the birds susceptible to hypothermia. (Birds are also at risk of dehydration or anemia if they eat oil.)

But there’s no cleaning a bird once it’s in the water because that would just ruffle its feathers more. Rather, a bird is swum in water, which allows the detergent to gradually remove oil from its feathers. A gentle hosing frees the head feathers of residue. A single bird may need several tubs of water, and the rehabilitation facility has an hourly capacity of up to 1,500 gallons.

Drying comes next. This can occur either in groups or individually, depending on the species. According to Callahan, “guillemots feel more at ease with lots of their buddies around, and divers are always dried alone.” The birds prepare for their return to open water by preening their feathers into alignment as they dry.