Last night, a good samaritan found an oiled bird on the beach and attempted to clean the oil off of it themselves. Though it might seem like a good idea – after all, oil is a nasty substance, and intuitively removing it should be a good thing – this is one of the most damaging actions you can take if you are presented with an oiled animal.
We’ve talked about the dangers of oil on humans, so we won’t go into that here – though it pains me to gloss over it, because oil is such a toxic substance! Still, I’m going to focus on why, counterintuitively, removing the oil from a bird can seriously harm or even kill.
There’s a little bit of background to this:
First, wild birds are terrified of humans on the best of days – we’re predators, we’re dangerous. Not only that, but they’re not in great shape when they first come in after being oiled – they’re cold, wet, dehydrated, often starving, and affected by oil inside and out.
The combination of physical weakness and fear (animal care specialists use the term “stress” for this fear, but it’s much more severe and acute than the stress of a busy life) puts the animal in a fragile state. Add to that the unnatural, frightening, and taxing process of washing, without a period of stabilizing care, and you have a recipe for the death of the animal.
Second, removing the oil is only half of the goal of the washing process. The other half is restoring the feather structure so that the feathers are able to repel water the way they’re supposed to – keeping the bird warm, dry, and floating. This means that not only does the oil have to be completely gone, there can’t be any soap left on the bird, either.
And last, the feathers not only keep water out, they keep warmth in – which means birds depend heavily on their feathers to keep themselves warm. When the feathers don’t work properly, birds get wet. When birds are wet, they get dangerously cold. An incredibly important part of cleaning a bird
is keeping the animal warm from start to finish, when the feathers are clean and dry and able to start doing their job again.
All this to say that there’s a substantial amount of technique that goes into washing a bird. The animal has to be stable enough to tolerate the process. The water has to be the right temperature and hardness, with the right amount of detergent added. The handlers need to be skilled, because the bird can drown or breathe in water and develop pneumonia if it isn’t restrained properly. The wash needs to be thorough, because sometimes there isn’t a second chance to do it right. The bird needs to be rinsed thoroughly, because soap disrupts feather structure. And the bird needs to be kept warm and dried thoroughly.
So please, remember that the best way to help is to:
- Report oiled animals to the hotline (1-877-UCD-OWCN) as soon as you can
- Keep yourself safe; don’t expose yourself to oil
- And don’t try to wash or feed or otherwise treat the oiled animal – leave that to our wonderful trained responders.