The following is from the BBC Sci/Tech Site - Thursday, April 29, 1999
Published at 04:56 GMT 05:56 UK
Dry cleaning for birds
Traditionally, birds have been cleaned in soapy water
Scientists in Australia have discovered a novel way to clean the feathers of
birds that become covered in oil. They use of a fine powder of iron and a
Experiments by researchers at Victoria University of Technology in
Melbourne, Australia, show that the oil sticks better to the iron than the
birds' plumage. If the powder is sprinkled on the feathers and then combed
out with a magnet, the oil comes away with the metal.
"We were quite amazed by the efficiency of the cleansing process," John
Orbell, the lead researcher told New Scientist magazine.
The new technique is said to remove the oil without damaging the waterproof
properties of the birds' feathers. This can be a problem with the
traditional cleaning technique which involves bathing the birds in soapy
Orbell and his colleagues tested the powder on duck feathers coated with
different grades of oil. Just one round of powder coating and magnetic
combing removed 88% of light crude oils and more than 60% of the stickier,
thicker grades. However, when the procedure was repeated 10 times, 97% of
all kinds of oil was removed.
The feathers were then examined under a microscope. Their tiny barbules were
neatly aligned, as they should be, and drops of water rolled off the
feathers, indicating that they remained water-repellent.
The barbules of feathers cleaned with detergents were entangled, impairing
their ability to shrug off water. Magnetic cleaning was also said to be much
quicker than detergent treatment, and less stressful to birds since it
involved less handling.
The Melbourne team, who report their work in the Marine Pollution Bulletin,
are now developing a portable field unit so rescuers can remove the bulk of
the contamination at the location of an oil spill.
"Iron powder is cheap and plentiful, and both non-toxic and a non-irritant,"
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which handles the
cleaning of birds washed up on the UK coastline welcomed the new
development. However, a spokesman said many of the severely oiled birds were
coated with a dried, tar-like residue that might be harder to clean with the
Does anyone know if this technique is in use anywhere as yet?
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