How to Clean Oil off Birds

Bird populations are especially vulnerable to oil spills because their plumage soaks up the oil, reducing the effectiveness of what their feathers are designed to do - keep them afloat, flying and warm.[1] In addition, as the birds preen themselves to get rid of the oil, they ingest the oil and it poisons them.[2] Without human intervention, most oil-contaminated birds die.

If you live in the vicinity of an oil spill and get involved in professionally run rescue operations targeted at cleaning oil-coated birds, this article will help you know what to do once you're part of the team.


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    Be part of a professional rescue operation. Cleaning oil-contaminated birds carries health and safety training.[3]
    • Get proper training as a volunteer from the rescue organization that you have joined. Washing and cleaning birds can kill them, so you must know how to wash them in a way that minimizes the chances of stressing them excessively. [4]
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    Identify oil-contaminated birds. Oil contaminated birds will appear blackened, sticky, and they will be trying to remove the oil by preening, if they have energy left.
    • Oil contaminated birds will preen constantly to the point of forgetting to drink and eat.[5] As a result, oil affected birds will appear dehydrated and emaciated.[6]
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    Avoid picking up oil-contaminated birds by yourself. Oil is as toxic to you as it is to the birds. As well, the birds will be very stressed. Only persons with specific training in handling both hazardous materials and wildlife handling should collect oil-contaminated birds for taking to the care and washing facilities.[7]
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    Keep the bird calm prior to washing. Oiled birds are very stressed already, without having human handlers coming into the equation.
    • Distressed birds require calming before washing. This treatment and intensive care should be provided by a qualified veterinarian over a minimum 48 hour period.[8]
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    Prepare for washing the bird. Once the veterinary team has determined that the bird is capable of withstanding the washing process (the bird has been stabilized, has had medical treatments, shows proper weight gain, has excellent blood values, and is behaving normally),[9] the preparation for washing can commence.
    • Dress appropriately. You will get very wet, you may be inadvertently injured by a panicking bird, and you need to avoid contaminating the bird or yourself. To protect both yourself and the bird, therefore, wear long rubber/latex gloves, a suitable apron or gown, and waterproof boots. Long waterproof sleeve pull-ons are ideal to protect your arms. If you have long hair, pull it back and tie it in place. Wear a waterproof cap to protect head and hair if wished. Expect to get wet!
    • Work as a pair (at a minimum). Throughout the process, keep monitoring the bird for signs of stress. If the bird appears overly stressed or exhausted, the vet overseeing the wash will probably require the washing to cease.
    • Use a gentle dishwashing liquid. Add 1%of dishwashing solution to warm water in a suitably sized tub.[10] The warmth should equate to the bird's internal body temperature.[11]
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    Immerse the bird into the warm water and dishwashing solution. One person should be responsible for this, and for gently holding the bird in place.
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    Agitate the water into the bird's feathers. This is the job of the second person in the pair.
    • Use a Waterpik® dental water jet[12] or a spray bottle filled with the dishwashing/water solution to clean the head.
    • Use a very soft toothbrush and cotton swabs to gently work away dried oil from around the eye and head areas.
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    Shift the bird to the next tub of clean water and the dishwashing solution once the initial tub is dirty. Be aware that you might need to shift the bird as many as 10–15 times,[13] so a third person might be needed to be continuously scrubbing and refilling tubs if you don't have enough available. The washing process needs to be completed in one go, to minimize the stress to the bird.
    • The bird is considered clean once the water in the tub stays clean.
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    Rinse the bird. Detergent has its own drawbacks on a bird's feathers (removing the waterproofing ability), so all of it needs to be removed. A professional cleaning operation will have spa nozzles on hand to remove all traces of detergent. This part is usually left to specially trained rinsers, so if you wish to do this, you will need additional training with highly trained specialists.
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    Dry the washed bird.
    • Place the bird in a net-bottomed pen.
    • Use a pet grooming dryer only. Personal hair dryers are too hot for aquatic birds and can burn their skin.
    • Expect the bird to start preening. This preening will do most of the job of rearranging the feathers into their correct waterproofing alignment.
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    Provide appropriate nutritious food and fluids. Keep monitoring the bird's recovery process.
    • The vet/medical team or a qualified volunteer will often tube feed the bird after a wash. Again, if you wish to do this, you will need appropriate training, as well as knowledge of the right food, vitamins, and medications that the bird should receive.
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    Check the waterproofing. This is done by placing the bird into a warm therapy pool.
    • Watch for signs of preening.
    • Watch its ability to swim and float.
    • Watch for alertness and dexterity.
    • Check for wet spots under the feathers over the next few days; these indicate the need for further cleaning and drying.


  • Survival rates of birds returned to the wild post-washing depend on the intensity of the oil spill, the effectiveness of the cleaning process, the species involved, and the safety or suitability of the relocation environment.
  • After cleaning is successful, the bird will be graduated to a cold water pool where it is monitored closely to see whether it is ready for release back into its new natural environment. Only highly trained personnel can gauge this readiness.
  • Under proper veterinary supervision, oiled birds are often fed ToxiBan, which is an antidote that encourages excretion of the oil from the bird's body.[14]


  • Remember, if you are cleaning birds that have been contaminated with oil, inhaling the oil on or near the birds is dangerous to your health. Oil contains poisonous toxins. If you are cleaning birds near an oil spill where dispersants have been used, be extremely cautious of what you touch and inhale.
  • A bird the size of a pelican can consume around 300 gallons/ 1,135 liters of water to clean completely.[15] If you live in a drought-affected area, your rescue organization might need to seek special exemptions or get in additional supplies of water.
  • This is hard, grueling, and often heartbreaking volunteer work. Birds that are not considered adequately healthy to undergo the washing process will be euthanized. It's also a waiting game, as it can take up to 5 days to determine whether or not a bird is fit enough to undergo the washing process.[16] Make sure that you're emotionally and physically up to the volunteering challenges involved.
  • Almost every bird which has been contaminated with oil and then attempts to clean itself through preening will die, either from ingesting the oil or because the additional time spent preening makes the bird more vulnerable to other threats, such as starvation or predators.[17]

Things You'll Need

  • Appropriate dishwashing solution – many rescue agencies use Dawn because Procter & Gamble donate it in large amounts[18]
  • Warm water
  • 10–15 tubs, or someone who is regularly emptying, cleaning, and refilling fewer tubs during the cleaning process, as quickly as possible
  • Waterpik® or a spray bottle
  • Cotton swabs or a very soft toothbrush

Sources and Citations

  1. Wikipedia, Oil Spill,
  2. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,
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