What Happens to Oiled Birds When They Land in Oil? How Can We Help Them?

A clean and waterproof Common Murre.


When oil spills on the water, especially a thicker oil like crude oil or bunker fuel, it can get on the feathers of seabirds (these are birds that spend most of their time on or in the water and little time on land).  The oil coats the feathers, which then can’t interlock, and the birds are thus prevented from staying waterproof (sort of like a hole in a dry suit).  The cold water can then get to their skin and causes them to become hypothermic and come onto land to stay warmer.

The best we can do for these birds, once they get oiled, is to rescue them and bring them in for initial care. Rescuing oiled birds is challenging.  It takes training, thinking out of the box, and care.  When an oiled bird sees you approaching on the beach, their first instinct is to run for the water.  Some of these birds don’t do well on land, such as Grebes and Loons, which have their feet set way back on their body, as opposed to dabbling ducks like Mallards that have their feet in the center of their body.  Even so, it can surprise you how fast they can move towards the water.  So how do you catch an oiled bird?  Techniques vary depending on the terrain, the tides, the amount of oiling the bird has, and if they can fly.  To catch an oiled gull takes a very different strategy as they can fly (so you might try to bait them) as opposed to a Common Murre (who need a long build up on the water to take off, but can run fast towards the water).

Search & Rescue practice on the beach sneaking up on a “bird” (the person with the pink ball).

One tried and true method is to stalk them on the beach with nets.  We developed a fun exercise that helps people understand what it is like to try to catch an oiled bird. In the photo at the top of this article, you can see two people practicing sneaking up on an oiled bird (in this case there is a person hiding with a ball i.e. “the bird”, her head is to the very left side of the photo).  In the photo to the left you can see another angle of stalking the bird.  The object is for the two/three people who are looking for “the bird,” to slowly sneak up on the bird and catch the “bird/ball” before it reaches the water.  This involves coordination between the people stalking the bird, using non-verbal signs, thinking like a bird (such as if you aren’t looking at me directly, you are not as much of a threat as when you stare at me), staging yourselves with your nets so that if you flush the bird, you still have a chance to catch it.

Removing a “caught bird” (the pink ball) from a net at a Search & Rescue exercise on the beach.

There are other methods to catch birds, such as proactive capture, herding birds into a specific area, or even working to catch them from boats (you need to be skilled and experienced to catch birds from a boat).  One of the worst things you can do when you try to catch an oiled bird is to chase them.  This will only wear them out, deplete what little energy they have, and if they are scared enough they won’t come out of the water and may drown.  Sometimes you have to leave a bird and come back at a different time of day, say at a lower tide.

Once a bird is captured, it needs to be transported to an initial care center.  This could be a place that is set up in a building, or perhaps at a mobile care unit trailer (there are two trailers in Washington State).  At IOSA we have many of the initial supplies needed to set up an initial care center.  During initial care we warm them up, examine them, flush the petroleum out of their system, give them fluids, and wipe off any oil that is blocking their nostrils or is in their mouth.  Then we give them a quiet place to rest until they can be transported to the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Unit, which will be located somewhere on the mainland.  While we did do washing, rinsing and drying of oiled birds back in 1989 at the San Juan County Fairgrounds, we only had a small number of birds (35).  The water requirements alone for washing and especially rinsing is very large, as well as it has to be held in a tank and disposed of, as well as kept at a temperature of around 102º to 106ºF.  We just do not have that capability here in the islands.


setting up pool 2
IOSA Volunteers set up salt water pools as part of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Mobile Response Unit.   IOSA has a crew of volunteers that have been setting up these units since 2011 and can be dispatched to set up the Units in the initial days of an oil spill.

There are  Wildlife Rehabilitation Mobile Response Units (for 100 birds each) that are available to be set up within 24 hours in a warehouse on the mainland.  These units have the needed electricity and water capabilities for longer term care.  These units can also be expanded on, but are a good start for taking care of oiled wildlife.  Once the Mobile Response Units are set up, oiled birds can be sent there for treatment, stabilization, and then washing/rinsing/drying.  When the birds are healthy, clean, and have spent time in salt water pools, they are released back into the wild, away from oil.   Click here for more information on these Mobile Response Units.


To be able to help oiled wildlife in an oil spill, training is needed in either Search and Rescued of Oiled Birds or Initial Care of Oiled Birds, along with additional Hazwoper Safety Training.

The Washington State Dept. of Fish and Wildlife along with the United States Coast Guard and other organizations present an Eight-hour Hazwoper Safety Class for Oiled Wildlife Responders every spring in Port Angeles and Everett (usually in February or March).  If you are interested in attending one of these training, you can sign up as a volunteer on the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife website or at the Dept. of Ecology .  If you are on IOSA’s mailing list you will also be notified of these trainings, as well as our trainings.


Oiled Bird Initial Care Training Class