How to clean oil off birds?

Huge oil spills that come from sources such as tanker leaks and offshore drilling have a destructive impact on wildlife and the environment. Oil-contaminated birds will appear blackened, slick, and sticky. They may be trying to remove the oil by preening. If they are experiencing exhaustion, they may be on the ground showing little to no movement. If you find a such bird, call the rescue services. Rescuing and washing birds are dangerous operations even under the best of circumstances. Calling animal control gives the birds the best chance of being properly cleaned and released. Let’s learn what is the best way to clean oil off birds.

What species of birds are most commonly affected?

The most common species of birds to be affected by oil spills are those that live near the coast and other bodies of water. Birds that feed from polluted areas are also in danger. Oil can be lethally harmful to waterbirds – particularly to diving birds that spend a great deal of time on the surface of the water where the oil sits.

clean oil off birds

Why do birds need cleaning?

When oil sticks to a bird’s feathers, it causes them to mat and separate, impairing waterproofing and exposing the animal’s sensitive skin to extremes in temperature. This can result in hypothermia, meaning the bird becomes cold, or hyperthermia, which results in overheating. 

Instinctively, the bird tries to get the oil off its feathers by preening, which results in the animal ingesting the oil and causing severe damage to its internal organs. 

In this emergency situation, the focus on preening overrides all other natural behaviors, including evading predators and feeding, making the bird vulnerable to secondary health problems such as severe weight loss, anemia, and dehydration.

Many oil-soaked birds lose their buoyancy and beach themselves in their attempt to escape the cold water. The fortunate ones are taken in by concerned citizens or capture crews.

12 simple steps to clean oil off birds 

Step 1: Stabilize the bird.

The first and foremost important step to cleaning oil off birds is to stabilize them. As oil-contaminated birds are generally dehydrated, exhausted, scared, and nearing hypothermia by the time they get to a rescue facility. Before they can be washed, the rescue group’s first focus will be ensuring the bird is warm, fed, and hydrated enough for further treatment. Medical treatments and tests will be performed by a vet or an experienced professional.

Step 2: Calm the bird 

Even after a bird is stabilized, it needs to be kept as calm as possible. Since wild birds do not like physical contact with humans, they will experience some stress no matter what. They require up to 5 days of calming before the stressful washing process.

Step 3: Check the birds before start washing

After 5 days of rest, the vet or trained professional checks the bird’s progress by looking for healthy signs like proper weight gain, normal behavior in humans, and other medical treatments. That is why you should not wash a bird on your own. However, you can assist in washing, if the professional allows.

Step 4: Get ready to wash birds. 

Once the professional team has determined that the bird is capable of withstanding the washing process, you can get yourself ready to wash. Come dressed in waterproof clothes including latex gloves, chemical-resistant eye shields, a plastic apron, and waterproof boots.

Note: Expect to work with at least one other person, if not more. The bigger the bird, the more hands you’ll need to keep them calm.

Step 5: Get your workspace ready with tubs and soap. 

You will need to move the bird through several tubs of warm water to clean the oil off the bird completely and properly. So set these out and fill them before bringing the oily bird to the workspace. 

Use tubs large enough for the birds fit in.

Fill the tubs with a solution of 1% dishwashing liquid with water to create a gentle washing solution.

The warmth of the water should be comparable to the bird’s internal body temperature (39.5°C to 40.0°C).

Step 6: Start washing by Immersing the bird in the first tub.

One person will be responsible for submerging the bird in the tub and for keeping it stable. The other person will agitate the water into the bird’s feathers. Use a soft bristle toothbrush and cotton swabs to clean oil off the bird’s more delicate areas like the face. 

Step 7: Change the tub 

Once the first tub is brownish-black and full of oil, quickly and carefully shift the bird to the next tub of clean washing solution.

Continue the washing like before until the water in the tub stays clear. You may need to move a bird through as many as 10-15 tubs.

Step 8: Rinse the bird. 

In order to remove the remaining detergent from the bird, rinse it thoroughly in warm water. Stop rinsing when all the suds are gone from the water coming off of the bird.

Step 9: Drying 

After cleaning the oil off the birds, it’s time to dry them using a pet dryer and let them rest. At this point, the birds start preening that is spreading oils from their glands which provide them with natural waterproofing and temperature control. 

Step 10: Recheck the birds for waterproofing. After a bird is fully dry, they are moved to a warm therapy pool where they are allowed to continue bathing and preening themselves. During the process, Professionals watch for the signs like preening, their ability to swim and float, and of their alertness and dexterity.

It will then be re-dried and returned to the warm pool. This will keep going until waterproofing improves and the bird can be moved to colder pools.

Step 11: Keep giving the bird nutritious food and fluids. 

The vet/medical team or a qualified volunteer will often tube-feed the bird after a wash. A bird may stay at a rescue center for up to 10 days gaining weight and returning to normal behavior patterns after an oil spill.

Step 12: Release the bird. 

Once the bird has completed waterproofing, has gained enough weight, and is behaving normally, they are ready to be released.

clean oil off birds


Bird populations are especially vulnerable to oil spillng because their plumage soaks up the oil, which reduces their feathers’ ability to keep them afloat, flying, and warm. Plus, as the birds preen themselves to get rid of the oil they ingest it, which can be toxic. Without human intervention, most oil-contaminated birds die. 

If you live in the vicinity of an oil spill, get involved in professionally run rescue operations targeted to clean oil off birds. Doing so is the only safe and legal way to help these animals.

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