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Home  |   Our Work  |   Aquatic Bird Rehabilitation  |   Our Process for Helping Oiled Birds

Our Process for Helping Oiled Birds

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:

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 tube-fed a nutritious food mixture to assure proper nourishment, plenty of fluids and vitamins, and is allowed free access to food. Its progress is carefully monitored by rehabilitation personnel to assure continuing health and safety.



When the bird is completely dry, it is placed in a warm water therapy pool where it continues to preen and bathe. It is closely monitored for floating/swimming ability, general alertness, and progress toward waterproofing. The bird will be re-dried and returned to the warm pool repeatedly until its waterproofing improves sufficiently and it can be graduated to a cold water pool.

These are outdoor diving pools, where the bird can be in a water-based environment full-time, and can continue to feed, preen, and behave normally. Each bird is carefully monitored by trained personnel including a wildlife veterinarian.

Nutritional support continues during the waterproofing process because the bird is often too busy preening to eat enough. Once the bird is fully waterproof, it is given several days to rest and re-nourish itself before being considered for release.

Medical problems or injuries such as chemical burns or wounds may be identified during care and are treated appropriately.


An oiled bird is released when it is completely stable, healthy, and when its waterproofing is determined to be flawless. An aquatic bird must be perfectly waterproof prior to release or it will not survive in the wild. The bird must exhibit normal feeding, swimming, and diving behavior, and have proper weight/blood values for their species.

Before release, the bird is banded with a stainless steel U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) leg band. This allows for future identification and aids International Bird Rescue in its research. It is only released to an area unaffected by oil and approved by State and Federal Trustees. If the area that it was captured in is still oiled, then it may be transported to a more remote location for release.


Preparedness for the Next Emergency

International Bird Rescue maintains two year-round aquatic bird rescue centers in California, which care for over 4,500 birds every year. Our staff's skills are tested daily, and our techniques are continuously refined.

One of the biggest problems in rehabilitating wildlife during an emergency is inadequate (or the complete lack of) facilities to properly care for animals where the oil spills take place. International Bird Rescue brings some medical supplies and specialized equipment to the site of oil spills. This equipment is stored at our centers and other locations around the U.S. and is shipped to the spill site as needed. Other items are purchased during the spill.

Once on site, there is a lot of work and coordination to be done in a very short amount of time to ensure that each bird receives the care that it needs.


How Oil Affects Birds

How even a small amount of oil on birds' feathers can be deadly.

How Does International Bird Rescue Help Oiled Birds?

Learn about the process of rehabilitating oiled birds.