Environment & Science

Oiled birds inundate San Pedro bird rescue (video)

Bird Bath
Bird Bath
Susan Valot/KPCC

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The International Bird Rescue in San Pedro has been inundated by a bunch of oiled birds, mostly from the coast along Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Inside the rescue, workers and volunteers use a towel to grab an oily loon from a cage and begin scrubbing it down.

The belly of the loon looks like it’s been dipped in hot chocolate. It’s a milky brown color. The large bird is not happy as workers at the bird rescue scrub it down with dish soap and rinse it off, eventually exposing the naturally white feathers on the bird’s underside.

Julie Skoglund is manager of the San Pedro bird rescue. She says they’ve taken in more than 140 oiled birds so far this year, with a larger than normal spike in the past week or two.

"There’s two parts," Skoglund says. "So a lot of the storms that sometimes roll through during the winter definitely increases the amount of oil that can end up in the ocean. And then also the fact that they migrate here during the wintering months exposes them to the oil during this time."

That’s naturally seeping oil from under the ocean bed. The oil gets into the birds' feathers, taking away their moisture barrier, which leaves them cold and makes it harder for them to dive for food. If the birds are exposed to the oil and tar long enough, it can burn their skin and cause feathers to fall out.

Eventually, they beach themselves. That's where animal control, and sometimes beachgoers, find the birds, pick them up and bring them into the rescue.

Last year, the rescue cleaned up more than 250 birds — a record for them. This year, they expect to surpass that.

"The thing I think makes it the most significant is we do get some funding from the state of California to help with this, but the cost to care for oiled birds is definitely significant," Skoglund says. "When there's a declared oil spill, you have a responsible party that's responsible for covering the costs... but in events like this, when there's only limited funding, it makes it significant for us to be able to handle that as an organization."

Most of the oiled birds brought in this year have been Common Murres, which just started coming this far south in the past few years. Common Murres started nesting on one of the Channel Islands about three years ago, for the first time in about a century.

Skoglund says the rescue also might be getting more birds because people are now more aware of what to look for and where to take the birds when they find them.

Once a bird is brought it, it usually stays at the rescue for anywhere from a week to a month, so it can regain strength to be re-released back into the wild.