Quack’s No Joke! Lucky Duck’s Oily Dance with Death

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When it comes to life-threatening predicaments, getting covered in oil is any bird’s worst nightmare…

Two things that don’t mix well are motor oil and bird’s feathers. That said, many bird species, including almost all parrots, budgies, canaries, and especially water birds, have the ability to secret a natural oily substance from a tiny gland (called a uropygial, or preen gland), located at the base of their tails. During the daily act of preening themselves, birds with this ability will use their beaks to spread tiny amounts of this essential oil over the surface of their feathers which gives their feathers a protective layer that is both waterproof and insulating against the cold.

Contact with any other type of oil however, has the opposite effect – causing birds’ feathers to lose their waterproof layer and their insulation and spelling almost certain doom for the affected bird, while also being highly toxic should they swallow any.

We usually expect to see oiled birds in coastal waters, for example when a ship carrying oil runs aground at sea, spilling thousands of tons of oil into the marine habitat; we’ve all seen the heart-breaking images and news stories of sea birds drenched in oil to know just how bad that can be for them. But that is not the only oiling danger our birds face.

Any quantity of synthetic oil or grease left uncovered or unattended for any length of time can be hazardous to not only birds but all kinds of wildlife (even domestic animals aren’t safe). And so it was that a large open oil pit at a trainyard workshop in Durbanville, Cape Town became a pit of despair for two indigenous African black ducks (Anas sparsa).

Staff at the Cape of Good Hope SPCA’s Wildlife Department are trained in oiled bird response protocol and were quick to react when the call came in of two ducks found drenched in thick motor oil after likely mistaking the shiny black surface of a used oil pit for a nice freshwater dam.

Cape of Good Hope SPCA - 2022.09 Quacks No Joke! Lucky Ducks Oily Dance with Death oil pond

Upon arrival at the trainyard, trainee inspector Trevor Rodney was handed two wet, black shapes barely recognisable as birds, let alone as any species of duck!

It was estimated that they had been in the oil for at least two days before workshop staff discovered them. Trevor wrapped them in towels to keep warm, carefully packed them into a secure carrier and quickly brought them in to our short-term wildlife care facility where Wildlife Officer Jon Friedman had prepared emergency treatment aviaries consisting of hydration fluids and warmth.

Once oiled, a wet bird’s body temperature will quickly drop and hypothermia becomes a real issue for them.

Their feathers lose their inter-locking mechanism and oil on a bird’s skin may also cause burns. Fumes from the oil can also cause lung problems and ingestion of even tiny amounts of oil when the birds preens can be catastrophic leading to digestive interruption, blood poisoning and anaemia. Stress will also be a major factor in determining how to treat an oiled bird so it was decided that it would be best not to begin cleaning them right away but to rather try and stabilise them; keep them warm and let them relax in a quiet enclosure with access to clean water and some food. When a bird becomes oiled, it’s desire to rid its feathers of the oil as quickly as possible overrides almost every other natural bodily function, including drinking and eating, so keeping them hydrated becomes crucial.  

In the meantime, Jon placed a call to SANCCOB; who are old-hands at dealing with all kinds of oiled birds.

Rehabilitation Team member Melissa Cadman advised us to bring the birds to their facility in Table View where their experienced veterinarians and staff would be able to assist. They also have the perfect, safe set-up for washing birds where there is no risk of re-contaminating any other species with the oil as it is washed off.

Jon rushed the ducks to SANCCOB where Melissa assessed the birds and an emergency cleansing regimen was figured out. Both birds were 100% oiled, meaning their entire bodies were covered in oil, and they were severely dehydrated.

Blood tests were done to ascertain the level of toxins the birds might had absorbed and ingested. One bird’s blood test results was not good and a course of medication was prescribed. Both birds were eating and drinking by now which was positive. The birds received one wash but because the oil coating their feathers was so thick, they would need a second wash and maybe even a third. The washing process can be very stressful for an oiled bird so care was taken to also not over-stress them but rather give them time to recover before their next bath.

Both birds were exhausted and mostly slept over the next 24 hours.

The next morning, we received some sad news. The ordeal had proved to be too much for one of the pair and despite showing signs of initial recovery, he sadly did not make it through the night. Sometimes the level of toxic oil ingested is just too much of a burden on their already compromised systems.  

The second duck, a female, however recovered well after her second bath and with all the oil finally removed, began eating and drinking well on her own.

The following day she was returned to our Grassy Park wildlife facility and plans were made to release her back into the wild near a safe body of water, far away enough from the oil pit!

The next day, after eating and drinking well, she was released. It was heart-warming to see her take to the skies, quacking wildly as she went.

For the Cape of Good Hope SPCA, it was another successful wildlife rescue and a wonderful example of two organisations working together to achieve a common goal of saving an animal in peril.

Two things that don’t mix well are motor oil and bird’s feathers

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