Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dec 1988: Cleaning oiled birds

"They're crows!" Actually, they're murres.
When I opened the box of oil-coated murres--seabirds that resemble little penguins with their brilliant white breasts and dark backs--someone exclaimed, "They're crows!" The misidentification was understandable: these murres showed not a speck of white.

I was one of many volunteers at the "Oil Spill Command Center," which had been hastily created to deal with the Dec 23, 1988 oil spill off of Grey's Harbor, WA. A British Petroleum oil barge had been accidentally rammed by its tug, and an estimated 231,000 gallons of crude oil was released. While crews raked up the oil on the beaches, sometimes rolling it up mats of it like thick pizza dough, groups of volunteers collected the blackened birds washed up on the beaches.

At the Center, the birds were identified by species, banded according to which beach they were found on and, if alive, tube-fed a high-energy food, and placed in a pen with others of their species. Eventually the birds would be cleaned or, if in poor condition, euthanized. A morgue counted and cataloged the dead birds (eventually 9,000 dead or dying collected; an estimated 90,000 not collected). Outside the building, cleaned birds preened in small pools and awaited their release at safe beaches.

Local newspapers called the operation a "M.A.S.H. unit for birds." Like wounded soldiers from the battlefield, the birds were subjected to triage so the washers received the healthiest birds first. 

Tuber, holder & scoter
Few of us had handled a wild bird before. We were taught to keep the sharp beaks away from our eyes and learned to ignore the painful bites that went through our gloves. Holders discovered it was most effective to sight on one particular bird in a holding pen, come in low to block its escape, and get both wings folded against its body before lifting the bird. Tubers learned how to feed the birds by sliding rubber tubing down their throats and injecting the liquid food directly into their bellies. Four times a day, at 8 am, 12 noon, 4 pm, and 8 pm, the ranks of feeders and holders moved through a maze of pens, caretaking over two thousand seabirds.

Most of the volunteers who responded to the request for help could not have identified a common murre the day before they became intimately familiar with every inch of the birds during the cleaning process. Many of the workers persisted in calling the murres "muirs" and the scoters "scooters," but we all learned their different species personalities.

Mazes of pens
Grebes were screamers who complained bitterly at their treatment. The dead-recogning of their red eyes and quick stabbing motion of their bills (usually used to spear fish) were used at the Command Center to attack any hand near them. They were united in their efforts to repeatedly stab any holder who reached into a group to remove a bird. 

The scoters were heavier and stronger, but their duck bills were harmless. A scoter might hang its head limply and play dead during the cleaning. 

The murres would try to avoid the holders but were not reluctant to bite with their strong black bills. Occasionally a murre might act as protector who attacked when the holder picked up a nearby bird, but usually a murre simply defended itself.

In addition to those species, which were the most common, there were loons, marbled murrlets, aucklets, puffins, gulls, and a sandpiper.

Murres, waiting their turns
The birds were cleaned of oil from 8 am until 9 or 10 at night. Mortality rates are higher when diurnal birds are subjected to the rigorous cleaning operation during nighttime hours, so the birds were left in quiet darkness (and we volunteers retired to our sleeping bags in a gymnasium) until the birds' 8 am feeding.

When we washers arrived in the morning, a lineup of boxes awaited us. We'd choose the end box, open it and seize the oily occupant first by the head to immobilize the beak, then crook two fingers under the folded wings to heft the bird out of its box. We placed it in a tub of hot (108 degrees F) water, which matched seabird body temperature, but put the human washers and holders in a sweat. Dawn dishwashing liquid in the water helped cut the oil. Moments after the bird entered the tub, the water was dark with muddy crude and a new tub of water was needed. Birds might be switched to three or four fresh soapy tubs in as many minutes.

Cleaning the head = most difficult
Cleaning a bird's head was the most difficult and delicate part of the process. Toothbrushes dipped in Dawn scrubbed off much of the oil and Water Piks loosened tiny leftover specks. Eventually the water swirling around the bird remained clear and the washer called for an inspection. A supervisor rolled Q-tips through the seabird's feathers and demanded a rewash for the slightest hint of oil. When the bird passed muster, it was handed over to the rinsers.

A bird from the wash water was soggier than it'd ever been in the ocean, but as suds were rinsed out, its natural waterproofing returned. As handheld shower nozzles were pressed up under the bird's feathers, it was a joy to watch the water bead into droplets. When a quick breath of air dried the down feathers, the bird was ready for a second inspection.

Washing and rinsing a single bird took one to two hours, and some of them could not withstand the process. One particularly oily murre in my charge had taken over an hour to wash. When at last it was clean and I called for inspection, I watched as the white nictating membrane rolled up over its eye. This membrane protects the eye and we often saw it while we scrubbed a bird's head, but this time the membrane did not go back down. It was a sign of shock. The murre's head rolled back and its beak slowly opened and shut. The inspector brought a towel and took the bird to a small cage with heat lamps. I understood that it would die. 

Me, holding onto that grebe's stabby beak
The days at the Center were emotional ones for many of us. One woman told me, "I wasn't too upset about all the oiled birds I saw until I went outside to see the cleaned birds in their pools. I thought that would be uplifting, but it really depressed me instead. I didn't know how they are supposed to look. I didn't know how beautiful they really are."

And there were questions that were hard to answer and ironies that were difficult to ignore. Did the stress we inflicted on the birds throughout the handling, feeding, and cleaning process outweigh the good we attempted by that process? Did our attempt to clean the birds convince the public that oil spills can be washed away? And did we recognize our own use of petroleum products in our efforts? From the plastic Water Piks to the garbage bags we wore to stay clean and dry to the gasoline we used in our cars to drive to the Oil Spill Command Center, we all used the products we saw killing the birds.

And maybe that's why we were there. We were not the blameless saviors of the birds nor were we altruistic heroes. We are a part of the oil-demanding public and in a real way, the oil spill was our fault too. We had been given the opportunity to take responsibility. 

As one volunteer put it, "Ultimately, we are all the oil companies."

Clean birds waiting to return to the ocean


  1. I do love and admire you, Pat. You put your beliefs into practice, and bring the reality home to the rest of us.

  2. Roxie, you're a sweetheart to say so, but I know that given the opportunity, you'd have been elbows deep in the suds yourself.

  3. Wow, what a job. I would be there cleaning birdies as well.