Southern California animal rescue teams this year have seen more oily birds—primarily common murres—travel ashore in the area, experts said.
While the oil seepage along the coast is a natural occurrence, the number of birds affected has put rescue teams on alert.
"This has been kind of continuing to increase," said Cindy Reyes, executive director of the California Wildlife Center. "These birds coming in spend most of their time on the surface of the water, floating around, and that’s where the oil is."
Jay Holcomb, executive director of International Bird Rescue, told Patch that his team has seen a small increase in oily bird reports over the last five years, adding that common murres have been spotted sporadically.
As for why more birds, especially common murres, seasonally have fallen victim to this natural occurrence, Holcomb said while there are no definite answers, "it’s indicating that the species is moving south a lot, and that’s the only reason we know," he said.
Reports of oily birds "start to come in late October, November, and right now it’s a heavy time in January and February—particularly when the storms are happening," Holcomb said.
In the winter season, storms that sweep Southern California stir up the oil, and it "moves all over the place," affecting the birds, Holcomb said. "All the birds migrate to our area during the winter."
Oil seeps occur naturally along California’s coast, and records of oil production date back to the 1500s when Spanish explorers found Native Americans gathering asphaltum from natural seeps, according to the state Department of Conservation.
The natural oil is thick, and when it gets on birds, the experience is similar to a person having molasses in his or her hair, Holcomb said. The oil can impair the natural insulation of a bird’s feathers and its waterproofing capabilities, which could result in hypothermia.
Due to having volatile elements, oil also can burn an animal’s skin, Holcomb said, adding, "It’s pretty tough stuff."
If beachgoers find a bird covered in oil washed ashore, Reyes said they should call the California Wildlife Center’s animal care hospital at 818-591-9453. Put the bird in a cardboard box with newspaper and a thick towel on the bottom, keeping it warm until help arrives.
California’s rescue centers also could use additional support during these busy winter months, Holcomb said.
"People always think the government pays for this, but they don’t," he said. "If an oil company spills oil, they will pay for it ... when it’s Mother Nature, Mother Nature doesn’t have a checkbook. So we just take on these animals because we’re rehab groups, and we incur the cost. The state has given us some money towards it, but it just doesn’t do it."
For volunteers interested in learning more about International Bird Rescue, which is based in Long Beach, they can visit the group’s website. The California Wildlife Center also has information for volunteers on its website.