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Oil and Birds Don’t Mix

The silver lining may be that “people look harder at how we take care of our world”

"Cleaning Birds With Loving Care." Watch
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Nine hundred birds and counting.

Dressed in scrubs on a sweltering afternoon, Jay Holcomb has his eye on a reluctant client, a masked booby whose brilliant feathers are befouled by the crude oil of BP’s well. The seabird is held still by two assistants, who lather it up with Dawn liquid dish soap, which in the heat of the spill emergency has been found to have remarkable powers to separate oil from birds.

Nearby are pens filled with birds awaiting their turns, and bottles of a blue sports drink for thirsty team members—this is hot, dirty, smelly, exhausting work. Holcomb spends the majority of his days in Louisiana’s Fort Jackson facility, an aluminum-sided warehouse filled with loud fans and the foul aroma of, well, fowl.

“There will be silver linings out of this,” Holcomb, 59, says later, “and I hope to God it’s that people look harder at how we take care of our world.”

Holcomb says he learned early on and through his career as a wildlife rehabilitator that “a lot of people think of nature and animals as something that can just be gotten rid of.”

Starting young with injured animals

He grew up in Marin County, Calif., caring for injured animals he found on long rambles in the hills. His first job out of high school was at an animal shelter in the San Francisco Bay area.

Now, Holcomb is executive director of the International Bird Rescue and Research Center, based in San Francisco, and it’s no surprise that he’s here on the Gulf, working 12- and 14-hour days, teaching others that animals “deserve life and rights and respect.”

More than 900 birds, most of them pelicans, graduated from the Fort Jackson salon, for release back into the wild. They’re the lucky ones—by of the end of July, more than 3,000 birds had been found dead in the spill zone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported. In addition, some 490 sea turtles and 64 mammals had died, though not all deaths were due to effects of oil.

In late July, just after the well was first capped, the bird-cleaning team moved operations 120 miles north to a facility in Hammond, La.

The work is continuing. The birds are brought in by rescue teams with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and examined by the rehabilitation staff. Each bird gets an ID bracelet and surrenders one oiled feather to be bagged as “evidence” to help determine BP’s liability for environmental damage.

The birds are not washed right away—that could bring on life-threatening stress, Holcomb says. Instead workers typically wait 24 to 48 hours, generally time enough for the birds to calm down and adjust to this strange environment. Then they get three baths, right in a row. Afterward, they go back to a holding area and a water tank.

The need to preen

Staff members watch for normal socializing, eating and, most important, preening. A bird cannot be released until it has “realigned” its feathers, which in healthy birds overlap like roof shingles to form a perfect, waterproof barrier. Without that barrier, they still can get really cold, even in the South in summer.

Holcomb expects to remain in Louisiana at least another two months—it’s the season when birds are starting to migrate south, so more will land in oily waters. “The well is capped,” he says, “but that doesn’t really mean anything.”

Molly Reid is an arts, culture and environment reporter based in New Orleans. Her work appears regularly in the Times-Picayune.

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