Rehab isn't just for celebs: How the experts clean an oily bird

Carlene Peterson

De-slicking wildlife isn’t just about the scrub.

At the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Alabama, a warehouse converted into a one-stop shop for bird checkups and cleanups, rehabilitation experts explained the process of how oil-covered birds are cared for.


When the bird first arrives on scene, the Dawn-filled tub isn’t the first stop. Birds head to the exam station and are given a once-over. Weight is taken. Basic lab work is completed. Then they’re put in front of the camera for documentation.

STEP TWO A little R&R

Stressed out doesn’t begin to describe these slimy birds. Their wings are useless. They’re likely ravenous, and they just spent some time huddled in a doggy crate on their way to the rehabilitation center. It’s best to give them some chill time. Still covered in oil, the birds are kept in a cool, dark enclosure and given plenty of food and water. This can be a few hours or a few days.

STEP THREE Evaluation

Like a car heading through the extreme wash package, the bird-cleaning process is intense. Birds have to be up for the ordeal. If they’re deemed ready for the rigorous wash, into the tub they go.

STEP FOUR Scrub a dub

A solution is prepared with Dawn detergent, and the scrub-down begins. The goal is to work out all the oil in one fell swoop, so the bird doesn’t have to undergo the process a second time. Kind of like giving a filthy 4-year-old a bath.

STEP FIVE Rinse, no repeat

Here’s where most of the 300 gallons needed to wash one bird come into play. Stripping the feathers of oil is important, but it’s equally important to make sure not a drop of Dawn remains. Soap screws with the bird’s buoyancy. So a thorough rinse is critical.

STEP SIX After clean time, preen time

After the wash is complete, the bird needs time to preen its feathers. The scrub literally causes the bird’s feather to fluster. Those feathers need time to settle down, to realign themselves. One rehabilitator likened nicely organized, buoyant feathers to shingles on a roof.

STEP SEVEN Return to the wild

With the preening complete, the bird is given some time outside to readjust itself before the release. It gets used to the heat, and rehabilitators make sure the bird can dive and fly. Once that’s determined, the birds are tagged and released into a location predetermined by federal and state wildlife agencies.