Storms likely to blame for high number of oil-covered seabirds

Oil-covered seabirds are washing up on Santa Barbara County beaches in large numbers this year, likely a result of the continuous heavy rainstorms on the Central Coast throughout the past few weeks.
The vast majority of injured birds, which are being impacted by naturally occurring ocean oil seeps off the Central and South Coast, are Western grebes, according to Elaine Ibarra, director of animal care at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network.
Grebes, she said, live and feed entirely in the ocean and huddle together offshore in large numbers, both qualities that make larger numbers of birds more susceptible to ocean oil seepage.
As of Feb. 12, the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network had treated roughly 67 Western grebes in 2019, all of which were found on beaches in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, from Port Santa Barbara to the Refugio area to Jalama Beach and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Nearly all the birds so far have been treated for complications associated with oil damage.
Although Ibarra said it’s not at all uncommon for the Wildlife Care Network to treat animals that have come in contact with oil, especially around this time of year and after storms, she said each year produces “extremely different” results. Last year at this time, Ibarra said the Wildlife Care Network had only treated 12 injured Western grebes, most for oil-related issues.
Despite its being a regular occurrence, oil can be detrimental to a seabird’s well-being.
Oil destroys the waterproofing in the Western grebes’ feathers, making it difficult for the birds to float, fly, dive, and maintain their usual body temperature. Ibarra said many seabirds that come into contact with oil begin to burn all their calories trying to keep warm and eventually become emaciated. In many cases, they wash ashore.
“It’s a pretty serious thing if they’re beached and they’re oiled,” Ibarra said. “It can get bad very quickly.”
Grebes don’t do well on land, where they can hardly walk, and can’t take off for flight, can’t hunt, and can’t eat. Their bodies aren’t built to withstand the pressures of living on land, and Ibarra said a beached grebe will often develop lesions on its feet after only a few hours, and can even develop more serious lesions on its bones.
“It’s a pretty rapid decline from there,” Ibarra said.
Residents who find injured, oiled, or beached birds should keep children and larger animals away from the bird and should call the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network to report the incident as soon as possible, Ibarra said. Volunteers work every day, including holidays, and will respond to calls and voicemails within a matter of hours at most.
The Wildlife Care Network is the only wildlife rehabilitation center that deals with both land- and water-dwelling animals in Santa Barbara County, Ibarra said. Another center, the Animal Rescue Team in the Santa Ynez Valley, had its wildlife rehabilitation permit revoked by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in January.
Residents can also report injured or oiled animals to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis, which, according to Readiness Coordinator Danene Birtell, has mobile teams and access to a number of resources.
Oil, Birtell agreed, can cause serious damage to a seabird’s life, and the extensive and complex rehabilitation process normally takes a minimum of 10 to 14 days.
Birtell said the Oiled Wildlife Care Network has recorded a little more than 100 birds that have been rescued and treated for oil-related issues in California so far this year, most of which were found in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
To report an oiled or injured animal, call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network hotline at (877) 823-6926, or the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network at (805) 681-1080.

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