Retrieve, Restore, Release

 What should I do if I find an oiled seabird?

Photo by Colin Wilmshurst

Guillemots and Razorbills (pictured) are the most common victims of oil pollution in the UK.      In the first instance they will endeavour to preen themselves clean,   when this does not work and they are unable to dive for fish, or keep themselves warm, they will make for the nearest shore where, unless they are rescued, they will sit until they die.

IF YOU  HAVE RESCUED AN OILED BIRD DO NOT TRY TO CLEAN IT, but contact the nearest wildlife rescue facility as soon as possible, as it will require specialist treatment as a matter of urgency.

The treatment and rehabilitation of oiled seabirds is a long and drawn out procedure, and should not be undertaken by people who do not have the correct facilities or training in this matter.

The basic requirements for rehabilitating oiled seabirds include :-

  • Pools for waterproof testing
  • warm/clean intensive care facilities
  • drying areas for newly washed birds
  • copious amounts of warm water, including spray
  • a supply of frozen sprats (or similar)
  • aquatic aviaries in order to accommodate birds for prolonged periods (minimum of 3 weeks).

When birds are admitted to a specialist cleaning unit they are fed and rested for at least 24 hours, although the normal period is 3 to 4 days, before any attempt is made at cleaning.  This is in order to calm and strengthen an already distressed bird and prevent further anxiety which is likely to set up a train of events from which it may not recover.  

 (Scientists have discovered that causing distress to an already traumatised bird can affect its immune system causing impairment leading to illnesses from which it will not recover).

Birds that are victims of chronic oil pollution may have been without food for several days therefore, before cleaning can even be considered, they must be brought up to strength in order to withstand the ordeal.    

Birds have been known to die during the washing process, if washed too soon. 

FEEDING.   The only food that can be offered to sea birds is raw FISH.   Fish sometimes have parasites which could, if offered fresh to captive birds, be passed on to them, therefore all fish must be frozen for at least 3 or 4 days before being used.     They are then defrosted as and when required.      Only small amounts of food at regular intervals are given for the first 2 days. Getting a seabird, which is used to catching live prey, to feed can be difficult.   Experienced handlers will have their own technique to achieve this.

When the casualty has regained its strength, been washed and rested, it is then placed in an aquatic aviary to bring about its waterproofing.   The time this takes varies from bird to bird.  It is imperative that it is fully rehabilitated "regained that which it has lost" before it is released.  This means not only will it be observed as it regains its waterproofing, but it will be watched for evidence of internal problems that it might have suffered as a result of ingesting oil.   It is for this reason that oiled seabirds are held in treatment centres for at least 3 weeks before release is considered.

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Guillemot sits under a spray on a pool of skimming water.
Note how beads of water sit on its plumage indicating that it is waterproof
Sadly some people, although well intentioned, have endeavoured to help an oiled bird, by taking it home, washing it (in the belief that is all that is necessary), and then returning it to a nearby beach under the misapprehension that they have helped it, when in fact they have done more harm than good.  Oiled seabirds cannot be helped without the correct facilities or training.  Those who think otherwise just cause additional suffering by putting it through unnecessary stress and then abandoning it to suffer again.
Wild creatures must be fully rehabilitated and able to fend for themselves before being released back to the wild.     Abandoning a wild creature before it is fit contravenes the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and is a punishable offence.