Tag Archives: Safety

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


HAZWOPER Safety Training on November 19th, 2016, Orcas Island.

Would you like to assist at an oil spill in San Juan County?  Then come to our Safety Training class on Orcas Island on November 19th, from 11:30am to 5:45pm.  In this class you will learn what you need to know to keep yourself safe during an oil spill.

Imagine a large vessel starts leaking crude oil in Rosario Strait.  The oil moves down Rosario Strait hitting Sucia Island, the north and west sides of Orcas, Blakely, Decatur, and the west side of Lopez.  Responders would be needed to set containment boom at Sucia Island and other spots.  Responders would also need to be out looking for oiled wildlife.

In order to be a responder during an oil spill, you need HAZWOPER Training.  Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response training (HAZWOPER) is a requirement for all oil spill workers whether you are working to contain oil on the water, on the shoreline, or are involved in search and rescue or basic care of oiled wildlife.  In this training you will learn such things as:  how to rescue someone who has fallen overboard, what are the signs of petroleum products exposure, safety hazards to look out for, the correct use of response equipment, what personal protection equipment do you need to wear, what is involved in the incident command system, and what are your rights and responsibilities, among other things.

Rover spill 1993 This photo is from an oil spill at the dock at Jackson’s Beach on San Juan Island.  You can see the amount of debris that is in the water, along with the sorbent pads that are soaking up the oil inside the yellow oil containment boom.  In working at this site someone would have done air monitoring to make sure that the air was safe to breathe, you would need to lift pieces of debris and sorbent pads (soaked with oil) out of the water correctly so as not to hurt your back, place bagged oiled sorbents and debris in a decontamination area (which would be constructed on site), and you would need to wear the correct gear to protect yourself from the oil.  If you were out searching for oiled birds on the beach, you would need to know the most efficient and safest way to capture the birds, while looking out for hazards on the beach.


Sneaking up on an “oiled bird” (a person with a ball hiding in the logs) during a search and rescue training.

We invite you to Islands Oil Spill Association’s HAZWOPER class where you can learn all of the above and much more.  With the class, and some take home work, you can receive 8 hours of training, which is the minimum you need to help out at an oil spill.  Please join us for this training where you will learn how to keep yourself safe in responding to an oil spill, as well as learn about oiled wildlife care and oil containment.

Please register for this class by filling out the below form and we will send you information on where the class will be held and other information on the class.