ANNAPOLIS, SEPT. 11 -- Volunteers in a fledgling struggle against the toxic effects of petroleum pollution got their ducks, and a few geese, in a row here today.
Under the direction of wildlife specialist Guy Hodge, they practiced the techniques of oil removal and treatment on a quintet of squawking waterfowl, reluctant demonstration models borrowed from a farm by Anne Arundel County's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"Welcome to Bird Washing 101," said Hodge, the Humane Society of America's point man on several dozen of this country's major oil spills. The models were spared the indignity and discomfort of actual oil coatings, which strip birds of their natural insulation and can lead to their death within days.
"Bird washing" is a course Hodge has given more than 100 times in recent years as he has helped develop the evolving technology of wildlife rescue during pollution crises.
"I have had my hands on 10,000 birds" fouled by oil spills since first volunteering for a rescue attempt in Philadelphia 20 years ago, Hodge said.
The Anne Arundel society has trained several hundred volunteers and plans to have an emergency wildlife rescue center ready for operation at its Annapolis facility by the end of this year. Hodge said it will be one of three centers in the country equipped to handle large numbers of oil-soaked birds.
Bird rescue is attracting intense interest from naturalists in the region of the Chesapeake Bay, North America's key wintering ground for migratory waterfowl.
It's not just the major barge accidents that gunk up the wetlands of the bay region, Hodge said. The bay and its tributaries suffer from the chronic pollution of small petroleum spills from pleasure craft and other minor accidents to the tune of an estimated 100,000 gallons a year.
Because the bay has little flushing action, less than 1 percent of its pollutants are pushed out into the Atlantic, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The pollutants remain in the shallow waters of the estuary, in the "sponge-like marshes" where "cleaning up after an oil spill may be impossible," the foundation said. Even small oil slicks can calm the water and prove a deadly lure for waterfowl.
That's where volunteers such as bird lover Kathy Shannahan of Baltimore come in. The Social Security Administration budget analyst took today off to come here for training because she was horrified by the major oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
Edna Erbe, who lives near the Patapsco River in the Woodlawn area of Baltimore County, said bird rescue will be "my contribution to society."
They spent half a day with more than 100 other volunteers, including some veterinarians and state environmental employees, while Hodge showed them how to calm a flapping, hysterical duck, take its temperature and strip it of pollutants.
"Oil disrupts the fine lacework of feathers and makes them mat together . . . destroying the insulating properties," Hodge said. Even the smallest spot of oil on a bird can allow cold water to penetrate and death by hypothermia can follow, Hodge told the volunteers.
Rescue by well-meaning but untrained amateurs is not recommended, Hodge said. Such efforts are best left to people who know how to capture and treat birds at a facility equipped with the right kind of detergent (Dawn is the cleaner of choice), driers, medicine and feeding solutions, he said.
Even under the best conditions, treatment centers usually are able to save only about half the affected birds, he said.
"People who take birds home to wash them don't realize what a complicated process it is," Hodge said. "Many birds are already beyond help when they arrive at the door of a treatment center."
The West Coast disasters of the past year have taught bird rehabilitators that birds can die from ingesting oil, so blood tests and supplemental medication are now being used, he said.