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Saving Oiled Birds

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from The Delaware Estuary: Rediscovering a Forgotten Resource, which was published by the University of Delaware Sea Grant College Program in 1988. The article was written by Victoria Crouse, who was a graduate student in applied ocean science at the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the time, and a volunteer at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research.

Since this story was written, Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research's founder, Lynne Frink, passed away in 1998, and the organization moved to larger quarters at 110 Possum Hollow Road in Newark, Delaware. Lynne Frink's
legacy lives on today in an organization that is recognized internationally for its expertise in oil spill response and the care of wild birds.

It is Sunday, September 29, 1985. At 11:30 p.m., the Panamanian tanker Grand Eagle runs aground on Marcus Hook Shoal near Claymont, Delaware. Through a torn starboard hull, 435,000 gallons of oil began pouring into the Delaware Estuary. Soon after, the spill claims its first innocent victims: waterfowl.

At 4:00 a.m., the U.S. Coast Guard contacts Lynne Frink, director of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc., a volunteer agency based in a small renovated schoolhouse near Wilmington, Delaware. Frink and her staff begin emergency preparations because oil is toxic. It destroys a bird's natural plumage and waterproofing, leaving it unable to swim, fly, or forage. Yet the real horror cannot be seen. When covered with oil, a bird naturally preens in an attempt to clean itself. Once swallowed, the oil eats away at the bird's sensitive gastrointestinal tract, destroying its ability to absorb nutrients.

First, the staff moves their regular caseload of injured and ill birds to two rooms. Next, they set up rows of tubs, pools, and pens, and collect reserves of detergent, towels, hot water, and medical supplies. Then, like an army hospital unit near the front, they wait for their first patients to arrive.

At the oil spill, Fish and Wildlife agents are busy capturing oiled birds. (Federal and state law prohibits unauthorized citizens at the scene of an oil spill.) Unfortunately, waterfowl, even when oiled and near death, will do anything to avoid humans. Two state agents rely on camouflage tactics they learned in Vietnam to ensnare a double-crested cormorant. It is put into a crate for the trip to the Tri-State facility.

When they oiled birds arrive, treatment quickly begins. Detailed records for each bird also are kept so that rehabilitation procedures can be documented, later studied, and perhaps improved. Cormorants and other diving birds like loons and grebes pose special problems for the staff. These birds usually arrive covered with oil from diving through the slick. Since they have long bills, long necks, and thin bodies, washing them is awkward and difficult. And most problematical, diving birds, of all waterfowl, are least adapted for life on land. Their legs are not strong enough to support their bodies. Tri-State workers try to make the birds as comfortable as possible by placing pillows and padding under their bodies to prevent abrasion.

After the birds are given intravenous fluids for rehydration, they are placed in soft-sided playpens with a heat lamp in one corner. Curtains strung around the pens shelter the birds as much as possible from outside stresses. Already, the experience has been traumatic, for these birds have suffered the stress of being captured by what they consider predators -- human beings.

Within twelve hours after being admitted, the double-crested cormorant's fluids and temperature have returned to normal. Now Tri-State's trained volunteer staff can attempt to wash the bird. The longer the oil remains on the bird, the more difficult it is to remove. Washing any bird is a labor-intensive process that usually involves two to three people. One worker ladles hot, soapy water over the bird's body and wings while another gently strokes the oil off the feathers. A third volunteer holds the bird in the tub to prevent it from bobbing its head underwater. Care is taken to keep the bird's eyes and nares free of oil and soap. Once the water is dirty, the bird is transferred to another tub and the process is repeated. The average bird will need three washings.

After the oil is removed, all traces of detergent must be rinsed away. Any residue can greatly impede the natural waterproofing of the bird's plumage. The cormorant is declared acceptably clean and rinsed when water beads freely from its feathers. From start to end, the cleaning process has taken thirty minutes.

Next, the cormorant is placed in a clean pen and dried with heat lamps. Afterward, it is given drinking water and a variety of foods. Its diet and droppings are monitored for signs of internal problems. If necessary, the bird may be tube-fed nutrients and Pepto-BismolŪ to treat enteritis.

Twenty-four hours after cleaning, the cormorant is allowed to swim in a large kiddie pool. After swimming, it preens and realigns its feathers. The bird naturally produces an oil that will once again waterproof its plumage.

Slowly the cormorant is exposed to water and air temperatures that mirror the wild. Once the bird reaches the average weight for its species and gender after a rehabilitation period which may range from as few as forty-eight hours to a maximum of several days, it is ready to be released. Even in this final stage of rehabilitation, Tri-State does its best to prepare its patient. The bird is given one last nutrient feeding for extra energy and then transported with care to an oil-free home.

Luckily, the Grand Eagle oil spill occurred when migrating bird traffic was at a low. A few weeks earlier would have entrapped thousands of summer birds. A week later could have meant disaster for thousands of geese and ducks. As it happened, fewer than two hundred ducks, geese, and cormorants arrived at Tri-State. Of these, all of the ducks and geese were released back into the wild. Unfortunately, fewer than half of the delicate cormorants survived, but those that did would never have made it if they had been left out in the wild.

Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc., was created by members of the Delaware Audubon Society in 1976 after three major oil spills in just under two years killed 12,000 birds in the Delaware Estuary. The organization began as a household operation. Now, over a decade later, it is internationally recognized as a leader in injured and oiled bird rehabilitation and will soon move into much larger quarters just north of Newark, Delaware.

Today, many oil spills are boomed off before striking waterfowl and other wildlife. Lynne Frink, director of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc., credits this success to a network of environmentalists, industrial managers, and government officials who meet regularly to update and improve oil spill prevention and response efforts. A good portion of Tri-State's funding is provided by the state of Delaware and a consortium of the major oil companies on the estuary, the Delaware Bay and River Cooperative.


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