Wearing goggles and gloves, a rescue worker cradled an oil-covered bird Sunday as it shrieked and shivered. She opened the animal's long beak to insert a feeding tube. In another room, a volunteer bathed a slender bird with dish soap, gently scrubbing its feathers with a toothbrush. Nearby, workers wrapped dead birds in tin foil and placed them in a cardboard box.
Since a mystery spill on the Southern California coast last week coated nearly 900 seabirds between Venice and Santa Barbara with thick murky oil, veterinarians, rescuers and volunteers have been nursing the animals at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center in San Pedro.
In the last few days, the sickly birds -- mostly western grebes that live in coastal bay areas -- have washed up on local beaches with oil-stained feathers. More than 644 have survived after workers tube-fed them, warmed them and bathed them. More than 200 others have died.
Because teams of rescuers will continue to comb the seashore this week, officials are expecting more birds to arrive.
"This is the largest number of animals that have come in over such a short period of time," said Michael Ziccardi, program director for the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, created in 1994 in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska and one a year later that blackened the shoreline in Huntington Beach. The San Pedro Center opened four years ago and is one of 12 in the state.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Bird rescue -- An article in Monday's California section on the rescue of oil-covered birds misspelled the last name of volunteer Loren Colter as Cotter.
The California Department of Fish and Game has not determined where the oil in this case came from and has not ruled out the La Conchita mudslide last week, which officials say may have triggered a spill.
The unusually high number of injured birds is partly a result of timing, said Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center. Many migrate here from Canada, Washington state and Northern California during the winter to hunt for fish in warmer climes.
On Sunday, volunteers lined up to help.
"I love birds. I love wildlife. I love the joy they bring us," said Beverly O'Lena, 58, a retired FedEx employee who cares for a handicapped crow at her home. She showed up Sunday morning after hearing about the oiled birds on the news. "Any human effort that can add to the safety of wildlife, we should volunteer. They are part of our environment."
By Sunday, more than 150 volunteers had signed up to nurse the birds, complete paperwork, prepare food and build beds, according to Cindy Murphy, a coordinator for Fish and Game. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and go through a brief training session.
Another 150 trained volunteers for the Oiled Wildlife Care Network helped out.
"They see the medical conditions of these birds and they feel emotionally attached," Murphy said. "They want to do whatever they can to help."
On Wednesday, residents began bringing the birds to the San Pedro rescue center, Ziccardi said. Soon after, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network sent 30 people to search in boats and on the beaches for distressed birds. They have been transporting the birds to the center in cat carriers and cardboard boxes with holes for ventilation.
Ziccardi said anyone who finds an injured or oily bird should not try to touch it because their sharp beaks can be dangerous and the oil can be toxic. He asked instead that people call the network's bird hotline at (562) 342-7222.
When the birds arrive at the center, they are usually hypothermic because oil harms their feathers' ability to trap air and repel water. Some have ingested oil by trying to clean their feathers, thereby damaging their internal organs.
On Sunday, volunteers worked through rows of ventilated boxes, tagging each bird, taking feather samples and photographing them. Then workers moved each bird to an examination table, as veterinarians took blood samples.
The birds were then placed in wooden beds covered with sheets. The heated room looked like a nursery and smelled like fish.
"We give them time to rest and get over the stress of being put in that environment," Ziccardi said. "If we take the animal and immediately wash it, it might not survive as well."
After 24 to 48 hours of warmth, volunteers and workers soak and scrub the birds' feathers and greenish-yellow bills in 103-degree water with dish soap. They comb the oil out of the birds' feathers.
Washing and rinsing takes up to an hour per bird, and the animals are fed eight times a day.
Once dry, the birds are placed in outdoor pools to simulate their life at sea. After a week, they are usually healthy enough to return to their natural environment, Ziccardi said.
Loren Cotter, 36, and his wife, Brandy Gaunt, 29, both of Long Beach, spent the weekend building bird beds and washing the creatures.
The best part was watching "the transformation from a greased-up sad bird to a feisty clean bird," Cotter said. "I just got hooked."
Even though they both work 10-hour shifts during the week, they planned to return every evening to volunteer for "as long as it takes," Cotter said.
"You realize the importance of these animals," he said. "With all of the things humans do to the ecosystem, to help and give back is very important."
Information about the organization can be found at owcn.org.