Many people have been curious about the way we at International Bird Rescue were able to clean the birds affected by the San Francisco Bay Mystery Goo Spill in January 2015 (Fig 1).
Before the wash
When faced with an unknown contaminant that needs to be removed from an animal, we first try what is known to work well for other contaminants on a few plucked feathers. A typical and effective wash for petroleum contamination involves Dawn® dish soap (Procter and Gamble) with or without pre-treatment with a non-toxic solvent called methyl soyate, made from soybeans. Pre-treatment agents help break up dry or weathered asphalt-like material. Unfortunately Dawn plus methyl soyate did not do the job in the case of “goo” birds.
When our typical wash procedure does not do the trick, we have to get creative, however a wash procedure must show good odds of success before we will subject a live bird to the stress of washing. We are also limited in what solvents can be used because many agents are too toxic for use on live animals, such as non-polar solvents like hexane. Hence, we generally only use products that are safe for human use.
We initially thought the “mystery goo” might be a silicone-based product, which we know from experience is very hard to remove. Our “bird-washing wizards” (i.e. IBR senior rehabilitation staff) tried a variety of products like baby oil, vinegar, and other options on “gooed” feathers from birds that did not arrive alive. A variety of procedures and application of products in different orders, using different methods for varying lengths of time were tried.
After much experimentation, we decided to try the most effective procedure on a few live birds, and then see if the birds were able to become waterproof afterwards. We wanted to know how the first group did before inflicting the long procedure on more birds. Thankfully, despite taking about twice as long as a wash for an oiled bird, this technique worked acceptably well and we were able to proceed with cleaning all the birds. Below is the procedure we used (Table 1).
CAVEAT: As in all animal care, the condition of the animal is of supreme importance. First and foremost any bird being cleaned must be medically stable before any attempts at cleaning, lest the stress of the washing kill the bird. Extreme care must be taken to prevent the bird from becoming chilled or overheated during washing, rinsing, or drying. All cleaning products must be thoroughly rinsed off at the end of the wash, as these products also contaminate the plumage.
Cleaning “mystery goo” birds
This goo removal technique first involved application of “pre-treatment” agents worked into the feathers, then birds were washed and finally rinsed until water began to bead up and roll off the plumage (Fig 2-Fig 4). While resting in a clean cage, birds are dried, while being carefully monitored for evidence of overheating (Table 1).
After the “mystery goo” was removed, the birds entered the waterproofing process, a completely separate and complex process in which birds are managed so they can begin to preen and realign feathers.
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