The Art of Waterproofing

Chintimini Wildlife Center clinic volunteer Alyssa Tarbox explains the process of waterproofing:

Have you ever wondered how birds stay afloat?  It occurs mainly because of the interlocking hooks and barbules on birds’ feathers – these help to provide an airtight seal allowing insulation from water and other potentially harmful elements. Additionally, their feathers become water resistant when they apply oils from their preen gland (more formally known as the Uropygial Gland), an oil gland found at the tail base possessed by a majority of birds.  Healthy birds do a pretty good job of keeping themselves water resistant and warm by the continual act of preening. But sometimes birds need a little help from wildlife professionals! If you have ever seen the infamous Dawn oil spill commercials, you are seeing part of the waterproofing process. However, much more work goes into ensuring the bird can return to life in the wild!

What happens if birds aren’t able to waterproof themselves?

Waterproofing cannot be done on a bird that is in critical or poor condition. Before the process can begin, an exam on the bird must be performed to ensure the bird is stable and able to withstand the procedure. At Chintimini Wildlife Center, waterproofing is one of the last steps before release, so it is necessary the bird passes all parts of the exam.

When a patient is ready to be waterproofed, they are first washed in warm, soapy water. The temperature must be continuously monitored to ensure the health and safety of the bird – if the water is not warm enough, the process will not be effective and the bird could quickly become chilled and go into shock.

We use a gradient of concentrations of Dawn dish soap because of its proven effectiveness; it is important to reach every nook and cranny of the bird’s feathers so they can go onto the next step!  

waterproof-bird
Photo Credit: Sheri Cochran

In a separate rinsing area, we use a consistent, high pressure stream of warm water to remove any buildup of residue.

Thoroughly rinsing each feather is a time consuming process.

The biggest problem that can occur at this step is trying to “speed up” the process. The goal of waterproofing is to only do it once. It requires taking the time to ensure that all excess residue is completely removed; if not removed it can result in the bird drowning!

When the bird is fully waterproofed, water will run off the feathers instead of penetrating them, leaving beads of water on the bird’s feathered surface. This ensures that the feathers repel water, which allows the bird to dive, swim, and float without sinking.

petrel-dry-300x199
Photo Credit: Hawaii Wildlife Center

 

Once the bird is completely free from soap and residue, the clean bird is taken to dry. An area equipped with a protective net-bottomed pen and an appropriate grooming dryer ensures the bird can comfortably dry. At this point, birds will start preening their feathers back into place. Each hook and barb of the feathers will realign into their pattern which helps create a natural waterproof seal.

Once the drying process is complete, our professional Animal Care Staff will determine if the bird requires another waterproofing session or if it is ready to be back on the water!

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