A grey goose struggled Friday morning as Jenny Schlieps of Focus Wildlife poured liquid soap on top of its oil-coated head.
But co-worker Holly Duvall had a firm grip on the slippery bird. She held it in a tub of 103-degree water — already turning black with oil — so Schlieps could work the soap into its feathers with a toothbrush.
“These birds are fairly stressed,” said Chris Battaglia, the director of the state contractor, about the mallards and geese contaminated by an oil spill March 1 in the Sunnyside area.
“They are wild animals,” he said. “They are not used to being handled. We are not their friends.”
The goose, one of up to 77 birds that will be cleaned at the Pasco warehouse of National Response Corp., will need an adoptive home soon.
Seventeen mallard ducks and 50 to 60 gray geese contaminated with oil were brought to Pasco for rest, rehabilitation and cleaning this week.
The ducks were cleaned first. “They are harder to handle because they are smaller,” Battaglia said.
On Friday, they enjoyed an outdoor pool covered with netting set up in the warehouse yard. They quacked and preened as they paddled around the water and stood on floating islands, with water beading up and dropping from their clean feathers.
“Overall, they made a remarkable recovery,” Battaglia said.
The preening returns their feathers to order after the oil contamination and then the series of baths they were given, he said.
Washing each bird can take from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the degree of contamination, as they are moved from tub to tub until the water no longer discolors from the oil worked out of their feathers.
As Schlieps bathed one of the first geese Friday morning, Duvall held a hand over its eyes to help keep it calm until Schlieps was ready to gently scrub its head. She worked a toothbrush in a circular motion and then back and forth in its feathers.
“They do not enjoy this,” Battaglia said as the goose splashed water on Schlieps and Duvall.
When Schlieps was done, the team moved it to a nearby work table to rinse off the biodegradable soap, spraying water through all of its feathers.
The feathers are naturally water repellant, Battaglia said. Once all the soap is rinsed off, the feathers will be dry, a sign that the bird is clean. All the bird needs to do is get its feathers back in order, like shingles on a roof, he said.
In a few days, the mallards might be ready to release back into the wild, the most rewarding part of the rescue, he said. A location has yet to be chosen.
But the geese are a domestic species, descended from the greylag line, that had been left to roam in a gaggle in the wild. Not used to being handled, they were as stressed as the ducks, Battaglia said.
The state’s goal is to keep domestic breeds from competing for food and other resources with wild birds. The Department of Ecology is looking for people willing to adopt the geese, preferably in groups of five or 10 because they are social animals.
A formal adoption agreement will be required with stipulations on the birds’ care. For more information, call 1-800-222-4737.
Nets and pens were used to capture the birds in the wild.
For the geese, a pen topped with netting was set up and seeded with feed. Once the geese got used to going in and out, a crew moved in to trap them and herd them up a ramp into a trailer.
The ducks and geese were stabilized in a trailer in the Sunnyside area and then brought to Pasco. Crews could not find a closer space available for a temporary rehabilitation station with plenty of water, electricity, indoor space and outdoor space for a 12-by-8-foot pool.
One tent set up inside the Pasco warehouse served as an emergency room, where each bird was weighed and examined. Blood was drawn and each was given a temporary band so its health could be tracked during rehabilitation.
Wildlife specialists kept them swaddled in towels much of the time to keep their wings confined. If a bird cannot move its wings, it will keep still and conserve its energy, Battaglia said.
Many of the birds were in distress when they arrived in Pasco. Oily feathers cannot repel water and keep the ducks warm. Many endured nights of 20 to 25 degrees before they were captured, and they lost weight as their metabolism worked to keep their temperature up to 103 degrees.
The mallards were force-fed Pedialyte and nutrients with tubes down their throats until they had recovered their strength.
The ducks were confined to portable baby cribs, covered with sheets to prevent them from flying out. Suspended netting formed the bottom of the cribs. It kept the birds from damaging their feet by standing on hard surfaces for too long or from getting a condition equivalent to human bedsores on their chests from sitting, Battaglia said.
The geese were left to roam in additional tents set up indoors with small pools of water and dried cobs of corn scattered on the ground.
Before the wild birds are released, they will be given federal tags. If a hunter shoots one, Focus Wildlife will receive a report. The tracking has shown that ducks survive in the wild for years after being cleaned, Battaglia said.
Nineteen birds did not survive the spill, including five mallards that died after being captured. Eleven mallards, a pied-billed grebe, a Virginia rail and a red-tailed hawk were found dead in the wild.
As of Friday, the search for more birds contaminated with oil was suspended. The Yakama Nation helped with the hunt, using their knowledge of local habitat to guide the search.
Anyone who spots an oily bird that was missed is asked to call the same number provided for adoption of the geese. Officials do not want any oily carcasses left to be eaten by predators.
The investigation into the spill from a tank on the former Monson Ranches feedlot site near Sunnyside continues. The recent owner stores hay there.
The oil traveled across asphalt and made its way through irrigation ditches to the Sulphur Creek Wasteway and then into the Yakima River, where a sheen was spotted 24 miles from the tank. The tank has since been plugged.
National Response Corp., which holds the state contract for cleanup of the oil spill, installed a fence around the site of the leak Friday. As much as 2,200 gallons of oil may have leaked from the tank.
The emergency response to the spill and contamination was winding down at the end of the week, after oil-soaked tumbleweeds and other debris had been collected as the banks of the waterways were walked down.
Any residual oil in the soil still must be dug up, and remaining oil in the water continues to be soaked up, said Joye Redfield-Wilder, Ecology spokeswoman.
Costs of the cleanup will exceed $500,000. The investigation will determine the responsible parties and they could be required to reimburse the state and pay damages.