A common murre being washed.

If You Give a Bird a Shower

A common murre being washed.

A common murre being washed.

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.

The washroom; full of specialty equipment, supplies, and trained personnel.

The washroom; full of specialty equipment, supplies, and trained personnel.

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

Skilled handlers prevent the birds from injuring themselves or others.  A wash specialist makes sure the animal is thoroughly cleaned.

Skilled handlers prevent the birds from injuring themselves or others. A wash specialist makes sure the animal is thoroughly cleaned.

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.

How to Help

The past few days we’ve posted a lot about what not to do during spill response. Today we’d like to share a few ideas for how you can help.

The best way to help is to get involved before a spill happens. I know, a little late for that, right? Well as we know, it’s not a matter of if a spill will occur, but rather when. Hopefully the Refugio Incident will be the spark that inspires you to join our network BEFORE the next spill.

The OWCN works through the utilization of a large Network of Member Organizations. Our responders join one of our Member Organizations and volunteer with them during non-spill times, gaining valuable hands on experience with wildlife. Affiliates of our Member Organizations also have access to our training program, which includes both online and in-person training opportunities.  When a spill occurs, we activate these pre-trained volunteers first, since they have received an education in spill response, and come to us ready to help.

If you would like to join the ranks of our responders, you will want to volunteer with one of OWCN’s Member organizations. You can find more information on our website at www.owcn.org and take a look around, or go directly to our Member Organization page by clicking here.

The second thing you can do is donate.  Typically, costs associated with oiled wildlife response are paid by the party responsible for spilling the oil. However, the OWCN does accept donations for oiled wildlife care and rehabilitation activities – any gifts we receive will be used to prepare for oil spills in the western United States and internationally.  Alternatively, donations to the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis can be used to support the various programs housed at the Center. If you are interested, please click here to learn more and to donate.

At this time, the OWCN has all of the in-kind donations needed for spill readiness. However, please consider donating materials like this to your local wildlife rehabilitation center and/or local OWCN participant organization.

You can also support your local wildlife rehabilitation organization. During spills, the responsible party pays for the clean up costs, including wildlife. However, local wildlife rehabilitation organizations that help us out during spills, have to operate with their non-oiled wildlife year round. Supporting wildlife rehabilitation ensures that we have a robust Network during spills. Again, head over to our website to see our Member Organizations which can individually accept donations!


The Road to Oil Exposure is Paved with Good Intentions

Photo Credit: David Yamamoto / Ventura County Star

Photo Credit: David Yamamoto / Ventura County Star

Over and over, I see photos in the news of kind, well-meaning folks who have put themselves at risk by attempting to rescue oil-covered wildlife.  In situations like this we always remind folks to keep themselves safe by not approaching the animals – but what is the danger, really?

Photo Credit Lara Cooper / Rueters

Photo Credit Lara Cooper / Rueters

Well, setting aside the risk of being bitten or otherwise harmed by a frightened, defensive wild animal, oil itself is highly toxic.  Oil is actually made up of an incredible number of chemicals, most of which do not play nice with the human body.  Some of these toxic compounds are easily absorbed through the skin, while others evaporate and cause issues when they are breathed in.

The effects of these toxins are variable, but there can be both short and long term health impacts when unprotected people come into contact with petroleum products.  Here’s an excellent article on this subject through Discovery News.

Photo: Animal Tracks, Inc (via Twitter)

Photo: Animal Tracks, Inc (via Twitter)

Our responders protect themselves with many hours of training and specialized equipment like petroleum-resistant coveralls, gloves, goggles, and boots, all so they can prevent the oil toxins from being absorbed through their skin or accidentally ingested.  Specialists monitor the levels of toxins in the air, so that we can take appropriate respiratory precautions when necessary.  And even with all this protection, our responders must be constantly vigilant so they do not accidentally expose themselves to the petroleum.

OWCN health and safety class graduation ceremony

OWCN health and safety class graduation ceremony

So while we want your help to report oiled wildlife (if you see anything, call the hotline (1-877-UCD-OWCN) to report ASAP), more than anything we want you to be safe.  Please do not enter oil-affected areas, and do not attempt to rescue oiled wildlife!  Remember:

  • Regular clothing is not an effective barrier to petroleum
  • Potential routes of oil exposure include absorption through the skin, ingestion, inhalation, and injection
  • Contact with larger amounts of petroleum and/or for longer periods of time increases the amount of toxins a person might absorb, but a long contact time is not needed for toxins to absorb
  • Breathing in petroleum fumes can also be dangerous, and
  • We do have teams of professionals out in the field, and we do monitor reports of oiled animals we receive via the Oiled Wildlife Hotline (1-877-UCD-OWCN)

Refugio Incident Update 5/21/15

Spill Update:

Only a few updates this afternoon – Recovery teams are on the ground again today.  We have five pelicans and one California sea lion in care.  We are currently receiving help from our network members, and we are NOT requesting volunteers at this time.  Stay tuned, more updates as they come in, and look for a post on human safety shortly – remember, please report oiled wildlife by calling 1-877-UCD-OWCN, and do NOT attempt to capture the animal yourself.



Refugio Incident – Questions about helping

With ongoing efforts down in Santa Barbara at the Refugio Incident, we are getting a lot of questions from the public. These questions generally focus around “how can I help”, and “why can’t I pick up the oiled animals”? We’d like to answer these questions, to clear up any confusion, and let everyone know that we have people on the ground and are working hard to assess the impact.

Why can’t I pick up the oiled animals? Two reasons, human safety and animal safety. During our spill our first priority has to be human safety. Oil is a toxic substance that can be absorbed through the skin, and can be dangerous to humans. Additionally, oiled animals that come to shore are very scared, and may use their “weapons” (bills, claws, teeth, etc.) to protect themselves if you try to handle them. The Oiled Wildlife Care Network has trained professionals that wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them protected from the oil and know how to safely handle oiled animals during capture. If untrained members of the public attempt to capture oiled wildlife they may cause additional harm. They may injure the animal by mishandling them, or they may scare them back into the water, which will further complicate issues with the fact that they are cold and tired.

How can I help? If you see oiled wildlife please report immediately by calling 1-877-UCD-OWCN, do not attempt to pick up the animal. At this time we are NOT requesting volunteers. The OWCN has a large pool of pre-trained volunteers that are ready to go during spill times. If we need volunteers the pre-trained volunteers will be the first ones we contact. If our needs for volunteers increase, we will send out an announcement asking for the public’s help. Information will be posted in multiple locations, and check back frequently for updates.

Cal Spill Watch: https://calspillwatch.dfg.ca.gov/

Cal Spill Watch Refugio Incident Volunteer Info: https://calspillwatch.dfg.ca.gov/Spill-Archive/Refugio-Incident/Volunteer

OWCN Website: www.owcn.org

OWCN Blog: https://owcnblog.wordpress.com

OWCN Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/OiledWildlifeCareNetwork

Thank you to everyone for your concern about the wildlife in the area. We are working hard to ensure that all people and animals stay safe. Updates to come…


Refugio Incident in Santa Barbara County

The OWCN has been activated for a spill in Santa Barbara County. There have been no confirmed reports of oiled wildlife, however, should you get oiled animals in your area, please call the hotline at 1-877-UCD-OWCN. We are NOT requesting volunteers at this time, and will update you all if that need changes. While we appreciate everyone’s interest in helping, due to high volumes of email coming in, we are asking that you please do not contact us with offers to help. Updates to come…

Happy students, happy ducks

This weekend the Wildlife and Aquatic Animal Medicine Club at UC Davis Veterinary School participated in a hands-on lab to practice avian physical exam skills. I’m always impressed at how willing students are to give up their precious free time (read: study time!) to take part in yet another learning experience.

The students, representing first, second, and third year classes, endured an hour of powerpoint lecture from yours truly before they got to the good stuff. With the cooperation of some lovely, personable pet ducks, the students practiced performing a physical exam on a bird, collecting a blood sample, giving subcutaneous injections, and gavaging a nice drink of water.

Stephanie was there too, teaching the students handling skills and providing plenty of tips and tricks to working with birds. The students all seemed to have a great time, and hopefully they learned a lot. As always, UC Davis students are enthusiastic about learning and compassionate and caring towards their “patients.” Birds of the world can relax; the next generation of avian veterinarians is working its way towards excellence!


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