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How to Clean an Oiled Pelican

Q&A with director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network

Veterinarian Michael Ziccardi has helped clean oiled birds at more than 45 oil spills around the world. The Director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California, Davis, has personally cared for hundreds of oiled pelicans in his career. Recently he spoke to SN Online about how to clean a pelican.

Q: First, how do you get them out of the water?
A: We go out as quickly as possible to capture them. What the oiling does to them, it causes them to lose their waterproofing, so when they get in the water, they get cold. We use large dip nets and sneak up on the birds, working in teams.

Q: Why do you sneak up on them?
A: Because they're going to try to get away. Some of them are still somewhat flighted - and can still fly in bursts, even if they're heavily oiled.

Q: What do you do once you have the bird?
A: These birds have been in the environment, they're almost in shock, they're dehydrated, and they haven't been eating well. What you want to do is bring them in and start them on good fluids. You give them water.

Q: What do you do next?
A: You transport them to a facility, in temperature-controlled vehicles. ...When they arrive at a facility, full medical exams are done. Veterinarians or lead rehabilitators will examine the entire bird looking for injuries. They look to see how oiled it is and where. They'll take a small blood sample to see if the animal has a low blood count. They also look at the amount of protein in the blood with will show if the animal hasn't been eating. By doing that, we have an idea of how to treat them throughout the rehab process. Each bird is banded and given a unique identifier so we can know which is which in the facility. It's around their leg.

Q: How many people does it take to wash a pelican?
A: Usually three people. You have a handler, a washer, and an assistant dumping the water, refilling the tubs, filling it up with Dawn dishwashing liquid and water.

Q: Tell me about washing the pelicans.
A: We have a series of tubs. You move a pelican from one tub and you're agitating the soapy water in and around the feathers and letting the soap and the people do the work. Literally, stripping the oil off the feathers.

Once the soapy water is oily, you move to the next tub. You keep doing that until all of the oil is off of the bird. And then all of that is taken away and stored because it's oily wastewater. We store it and then haul it off as hazardous waste.

Once the animal is completely washed we have to rinse the soapy water off because the soap can cause problems also. It can cause almost the same problems as the oil can.

Q: Really?
A: The way I like to describe it is, you think of a feather like a piece of Velcro. Normally, a feather holds the barbs and the barbules that make up the feathers. That structure keeps birds waterproof. The feather is structurally keeping the water out. What the oil does is interfere with the two pieces of Velcro sticking to each other. So the water can seep right down to the skin to get the birds cold.

So we wash the oil out. But the soap can cause the pieces of Velcro to not stick together as well. So we have to wash the soap out as well. We do that by rinsing the birds with warm water at a pressure to actually get down to the base of the feathers. It's a fascinating thing, because you wash the bird, and you wash all the oil off and you start rinsing the bird. And as the soap leaves the feathers the birds actually become waterproof. So when you're almost done rinsing, the water is actually repelled by the feathers. So you're drying the bird by rinsing it.

Q: Wow. That is so cool.
A: It is. Once the bird is completely washed and rinsed, we dry them in pens with heat lamps or with modified pet groomer dryers. We're drying the water off the feathers but we're also encouraging the birds to preen. They're realigning the feature structures. Once we wash all the oil and rinse the soap off, the pieces of Velcro aren't perfectly aligned, so by preening, what they're doing is realigning the feathers to get that water proofing back the way it was.

Q: I read that you have to have somebody hold the bird's beak shut because you don't want to get any chemicals in its mouth. Is that true?
A: With pelicans, you can't hold the bills shut. Because they don't breathe out of their nostrils. The [handlers] hold the bills shut, but with a finger in between so the birds can breath. You want a handler that's experienced. The same thing [is true] for holding the body too tight, because birds don't have a diaphragm, they breathe by their chest. If you hold a bird too tight, you can actually cause it not to breath....

Q: What would be the danger if any oil from the spill got in the mouth?
A: Most of these birds are likely to have been preening, or cleaning their feathers in the environment. So it's likely they are ingesting some of the oil from the spill. The washers actually go in the mouth with either a wet cloth, or washing it directly, depending on how much there is. If they don't wash the oil out, it will pass through. Birds do pass food very quickly. So if birds ingest oil it can cause problems with their internal organs.

Q: What do you do with the birds after they're clean?
A: We work with wildlife refuge owners to release the birds to safe places. We make sure animals of the same species are there. You don't want to release brown pelicans in an area where there are no other brown pelicans. And you want to release them in groups if you can. In an ideal world you'd return them exactly where you found them.

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