I was shown how to hold an alarmed bird's beck scissored between two fingers to avoid being stabbed, how to wield the water-piks and soft toothbrushes used to loosen the worst of the black gunk, and how to work the oil-cutting suds in between feathers.
I was then handed a black bird and told that it was a murre. As the water sluiced away the stinky ooze, I was amazed to discover that the bird in my hands had a breast of startling white. This is how I learned that murres resemble penguins when not covered with killing oil.
Other volunteers kept new basins of water coming as we washers worked--each bird had to be repeatedly transferred to clean, warm water--to survive they needed to have every speck of oil washed away, and they had to be kept warm while this hour-long procedure took place.
Common murres were particularly vulnerable to the oil spill. They feed by diving beneath the water surface and so became thoroughly coated with the oil. Also, because they are gregarious, a large segment of their population was affected. Other seabirds share these traits, but because murres are more numerous, they came into the hastily-created center in staggering numbers.
There are two murres I remember most clearly from the scores I handled during those terrible, hectic days of cleaning. One was the first, with its bright white feathers suddenly revealed; the other was one who had endured the spill, the capture, the wait under warming lights with all the other soiled seabirds, the force feedings, and nearly the entire hour of washing, only to die in my hands as I rinsed away the last suds.
This was not unusual. Birds that initially survive a spill may not survive all the handling needed to capture, clean, and eventually release them. Many die of shock.
I later learned that of the 10,000 seabirds collected in that relatively small spill, 9,000 were dead or died in captivity (statistics show that seventy-five percent of cleaned birds die); only 1,000 survived the ordeal and were released back to the ocean.
Should we try to clean oil-coated birds? What do you think?