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Oiled Birds Serve as Research Subjects

Scientists work to improve oiled birds' cahnces of survival after oil spills.

BirdChannel News Division
Posted: February 1, 2008, 12:00 a.m. PDT

In the wake of the 58,000-gallon oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in November 2007, a team of veterinary scientists is working to improve all oiled birds' chances of survival. While the injured birds undergo treatment at the rescue center in Fairfield, they are serving as the subjects of oiled-bird studies designed to help save others.

Michael Ziccardi, a University of California Davis wildlife veterinarian and director of Oiled Wildlife Care Network (, is leading the team of veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitation specialists and volunteers caring for the birds. The focus, he said, is to understand how the birds respond to rehabilitation.

"Studies like these will help us to provide better care," he said, "and also to better understand the long-term health and survival of oiled birds."

As part of the new studies, bird specialists are using infrared thermography. This imaging technology monitors body heat.

UC Davis spill-response veterinarian Greg Massey said the infrared thermography has been a big advantage in detecting cleaned birds that are losing body heat because there's a problem in waterproofing, which might lead to death. Identifying these risks early before a bird gets too cold means less stress on an already frightened bird, Massey said, and it speeds up the process to restore their waterproofing for proper insulation in the water.

"We're trying to improve their care so that they get back to normal as quickly as possible while expending as little energy as possible," he said. "If we can make the recovery process more efficient, then we're ahead of the curve."

The ongoing studies also include:

  • microchips: Small identifying chips, similar to those gaining wide use in pet cats and dogs, are attached to leg bands as an aid to tracking individual birds as they move through a rescue center.
  • radio-tracking: Up to 30 birds from this spill will be equipped with external VHF radio transmitters to show researchers where the birds go and how long they live.
  • rescue center sanitation: To better protect the birds' health, the air, water, hard surfaces and feeding tubes in the rescue center will be tested for Aspergillus mold.
  • blood analyses: Various data gathered in blood tests - such as levels of hemoglobin, fibrinogen and lactate - will be compared to determine which best predict survival and a return to normal biological functions.
  • anemia: Blood samples will be analyzed to gain a fuller understanding of the causes of various forms of anemia in oiled birds.

It will take up to a year to analyze the data from these studies, Massey said. The goal is to publish the results and present the information in conferences on the effects of oil on wildlife. "It's obvious from this spill that people want these animals cared for," he said. 

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