Birds’ bathing and preening is not for vanity

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Pool-side spa for patients . . . Gulliver, an endangered black-billed gull from Southland had a long stay with Dunedin Wildlife Hospital, spend ing plenty of time in the therapy pool. PHOTO: DR LISA ARGILLA

When you’re booking a holiday, you might consider accommodation that includes a swimming pool a bit of luxury, but when it comes to seabird patients in the Wildlife Hospital, a poolside room is a necessity.

“Our therapy pool is one of our key tools to ready seabird patients to go back to the wild,” hospital director Dr Lisa Argilla says.

“It’s not just to keep them strong and fit, but to ensure they are completely waterproof before they head back to sea.”

If you’ve spent any time observing seabirds in the wild, you’ll know that they spend a lot of time bathing and preening, which certainly isn’t for vanity reasons.

They are ensuring that the tiny, interlocking hooks and barbs found on their feathers are properly in place.

Once aligned, the feathers create a tight overlapping pattern that results in a natural waterproof seal.

“If we were to send a seabird patient back out into the wild without proper waterproofing, it would be deadly,” Dr Argilla said.

“Once it lands on the ocean surface, or dives to catch a meal, it would soak up water like a sponge and get too cold to eat.

“It could lose buoyancy and be unable to float properly.”

In addition to an injury or illness that lands them in hospital in the first place, a hospital stay itself can affect a bird’s waterproofing.

“The fish oils in the patients’ food can definitely have a negative impact,” Dr Argilla said.

“You have to cut the fish to the proper size for the bird.

“Too big and the fish can smoosh out the sides of their mouths on to their feathers.

“There’s a proper technique to hand-feeding, so it’s either our vet staff or very experienced volunteers that are allowed to hand-feed seabirds.

And those hands themselves are quite important.

“Touching seabirds with dirty hands is not good practice,” Dr Argilla said.

“We have our own natural oils on our skin that can interfere with waterproofing, so we are sure to handle birds only with freshly washed and dried hands, or with towels as a barrier.

“We avoid disposable gloves because they’re not sustainable.

Not all seabirds are immediately ready for a trip to the therapy pool.

If they’re not ready to swim, they are misted twice per day with fresh water to encourage them to preen themselves and start putting their feathers back into their proper interlocking pattern.

“They generally seem to love it,” Dr Argilla says of the misting.

“It’s like offering a spa service to go along with our poolside accommodation.”