Special Reports

Rehabilitation of oiled birds a sticky situation

STOCK ISLAND — Gingerly holding the head of a dead cormorant, Lee Fox demonstrated how to wash olive oil off the bird’s scalp with a soft toothbrush and flush its eyes with saline solution.

“You have to hold his head down or the water can go down his throat, into his trachea and drown him,” said Fox, founder of Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota.

Fox was at the Florida Keys Community College recently to teach two classes on Oiled Wildlife Response. About 80 people — including a judge, a retired electrician and an AT&T service technician — paid $50 each to attend.

But the attendees soon learned that volunteering to help save wild birds caught in the crude oil of the massive Deepwater Horizon spill isn’t easy — even for someone with as much experience as Fox.

In 1993, Fox oversaw the rescue of more than 350 seabirds during a tanker oil spill in Tampa Bay. The mostly volunteer operation saved about 85 percent of the birds that were brought to the makeshift hospital and rehabilitation center at Fort De Soto Park.

Fox won 11 awards from the federal government, the state and environmental organizations for the successful effort. She said things went well because of preparation.

Two or three days after the Gulf oil rig blowout April 20, a woman from BP called Fox to ask if she wanted to respond. Fox said yes, and began stocking her rehabilitation center’s oiled response van and trailer with donated supplies.

But so far, Fox has not received a call from BP’s contractor, Delaware-based Tri-State Wildlife Rescue and Research, a company that worked with her in the Tampa Bay spill and praised her for her organization and knowledge.

During the class in the Keys, Fox broke down and cried while discussing her frustrations with the process and the mistakes she said are being made in the way the birds from this oil spill are being rescued.

“There are babies in the rookeries that have been abandoned and in five to seven days they will die,” she said.

People in the class were frustrated to learn that they would need to have worked/volunteered for three months with birds at a wildlife center before being allowed to help.

Carmen Simonton, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s chief of the permitting branch for migratory birds, told the class that the rehabilitation and stabilization centers opened to treat oiled birds now have enough volunteers.

But she said the problem is huge, and as time goes on and more wildlife is affected, more volunteers will be needed to replace the weary and 100 veterinary students who have to go back to school, as well as possibly open new centers.

Fox said most people don’t know how difficult it is to work with oiled birds that need to be rescued, stabilized, washed, fed and cared for until they are well enough to be released. Training is important.

For the washing demonstration, three tubs were set up, each with a different concentration of Dawn detergent and 15 gallons of water at about 104 degrees Farenheit. The birds should be in the water a maximum of 45 minutes.

Fox showed the proper way to hold the cormorant to prevent injury to the bird and to the washers. It takes four people per bird.

The bird is washed in the first tub until the water is dirty. Then the bird is moved to the next tub, repeating the process and using as many as 12 tubs per bird.

The proof of a good job is in the rinsing, Fox said. If the water beads on the body and feathers, the oil is gone.

After the first group tried, the rinsing proved the bird was still oiled. And that was with a dead bird. Live birds that thrash and can become stressed are much more difficult to clean.

“Using a deceased bird is not a good example,” Fox said, “but I would never put a live bird through this.”

Fox said Wednesday her frustration continues to grow as she continues to not be allowed to help with the official oil spill response for seabirds.

So she does what she can do: Train others. Next month she plans to return to the Keys with a medical expert on birds from Cornell University to hold a class for veterinarians and vet techs on oiled bird triage.

“All we can do is be ready,” she said.