US Fish & Wildlife Service


Date of this Version

January 1991


Published in Diana H. Cross and Paul Vohs (eds.) Waterfowl Management Handbook. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1988. Online at


Oil contamination of waterfowl and seabirds has been documented as a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in birds for more than 50 years. Each year more than one million birds may die from oil contamination in North Atlantic waters alone; worldwide mortality is unknown.

Of special concern is that many of the seabirds commonly affected are not prolific breeders, and assessment of each species’ status is handicapped by the difficulty of accurately monitoring trends in marine bird populations.

Oiled bird rehabilitation is an intensive, crisis-oriented response, requiring an experienced management agency, specialized medical expertise, stockpiles of specially designed equipment, and a tremendous investment of human resources.

Nevertheless, after a major oil spill, the public demands that the affected wildlife species be treated, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, as the mandated response agency for the United States, will be called in to respond to the situation.

Unfortunately, very few organizations have the expertise required to rehabilitate oiled birds. Public interest and involvement in the plight of oiled wildlife have resulted in some disastrous rehabilitation efforts. Oiled birds have been rolled in kitty litter, dipped in melted butter, covered with cornmeal, and plucked, all with tragic consequences. When overseen by an experienced agency, however, successful oiled bird rehabilitation has occurred. Particular rehabilitation success is seen in swans, geese, and ducks, with average release rates exceeding 90%.

In this chapter we attempt to provide the wildlife professional with a basic understanding of the internal and external effects of oil on birds, and the key components of an effective oil spill response. We emphasize the handling of waterfowl and seabirds. This chapter does not provide the detailed information needed to manage a major oil spill response.