The shorebirds and seabirds which occupy a prominent and beloved place in our coastal community will suffer decades-long effects of the Gulf disaster, revealing the consequences of human carelessness and inattention. In an interview with The Center for Birds of Prey executive director Jim Elliott, I learned what happens to a bird who has come in contact with oil, the process for treating that bird, and the long term consequences for birds and their habitats.
Mr. Elliott explains, “You can tell what is most important to a creature by the amount of time spent on any given thing. Birds spend an enormous amount of time on their feathers.” Birds preen not from vanity (an emotion exclusive to humans) but because feathers are crucial to health and life. Feathers regulate body temperature and are necessary for flight; they are the precious survival mechanism and the first defense.
Because the biophysical balance is destroyed, an oiled bird is susceptible to hypothermia which leads to dehydration. “Even a dime size amount of oil can be fatal to a bird,” Mr. Elliott notes. Oil is also caustic. If a bird ingests or inhales oil, all the tender membranes become inflamed: eyes, lungs, air sacs, stomach lining. The first response is triage, stabilizing a suffering, frightened bird. The bird is kept warm, a flush is administered, a charcoal mix for the stomach. All this happens before washing.
Due to stress, many birds will not survive triage. Mr. Elliott stresses the gravity of the decision to euthanize many birds that cannot be stabilized and will only survive to suffer a little longer.
The cleaning process involves a series of washes wherein the first priority is to clean the feathers without destroying a bird’s ability to produce the natural oils required for health. “Two cases of Dawn have already been donated,” smiles Mr. Elliott. Dawn is the detergent of choice since it doesn’t overdo it and enables the bird to restore a natural balance. The restoration of healthy feathers takes time, during which the bird is monitored in outdoor and indoor pools, and reunited with feathered companions.
Even after treatment, a bird’s survival is not secured. The stress involved with injury and treatment compromises the bird’s immune system. Ulcers, and a fungus causing respiratory distress are common consequences to the trauma of an encounter with oil. However, the procedure for dealing with and healing oiled birds has improved significantly in recent years. What used to be an exercise in futility now boasts a much improved success rate, due to the diligence and research of foundations such as the International Bird Rescue and Research out at UC-Davis, and Tri-State Bird Rescue in Delaware.
Mr. Elliott emphasizes the “social, economic and ecological value” of a proactive response to environmental dangers. Communities that recognize the imperative of ecological health and biodiversity for human survival also recognize the need for and value of the Center’s Oiled Bird Response Facility, which is prepared to send teams of volunteers and staff to the Gulf Coast.
The staff and volunteers at the Center for Birds of Prey provide a model for how to respond and act in a situation that is overwhelming and heart-breaking. Sick at heart, they mobilize their compassion and advocate for change through their work. It is “impossible to predict all the implications” of this catastrophe. “We can’t create a model of the effects,” admits Mr. Elliott. But we can model response-ability, which honors and values all life, admits complicity in the dire state of the world, works night and day to inspire a tidal shift in awareness, and teaches a new way to live.
Visit the slideshow to see and learn more about the facility.
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