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Oiled loon recovers in Port O'Connor (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
April 2, 2014 at 8 p.m.
Updated April 1, 2014 at 11:02 p.m.

Sharon Schmalz, executive director of  the Wildlife Center of Texas, handles a loon that was partially covered in splotches of oil. Teams with the Wildlife Center of Texas went to Port O'Connor, where they are caring for birds affected by the recent oil spill into the South Texas bays near Port O'Connor. See experts talk about injured birds at

PORT O'CONNOR - A 6-pound bird with oil on its chest and left wing honked in disapproval as caretakers placed kids' socks on its feet Wednesday.

The common loon was found on Mustang Island near Corpus Christi and brought to a wildlife rehabilitation center established in Port O'Connor.

As of Monday, the latest data available, 47 oiled dead animals had been found on Matagorda and Mustang islands, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Nancy Brown. Of those, 43 are birds, two are turtles, and two are dolphins. Only two oiled birds have been found alive on the islands. Both were sent to the rehabilitation trailer in Port O'Connor. One did not survive.

A shipwreck in the Houston Ship Channel on March 22 spilled more than 168,000 gallons of oil, which floated south, washing up on the islands.

The juvenile loon is one of two birds treated in the facility in Port O'Connor, said Sharon Schmalz, executive director of the Wildlife Center of Texas. The other bird, a Northern gannet, died. Common loons have a hard time standing up on their legs, which are set back toward their rear, Schmalz said. The birds are designed to hang out in the water.

Kids' socks were placed on the loon's feet to prevent sores while it is kept in a kennel for stabilization, she said.

When the bird arrived at the rehabilitation tailer Monday, it was dehydrated and had severe diarrhea.

"He was pretty bright and alert, calling a lot," said Jill Heatley, associate professor of zoological medicine at Texas A&M University.

The gender of the loon cannot be identified externally, but caretakers have defaulted to calling the bird "him."

Oil damages the waterproofing capability of birds' feathers, "unzipping" them to the elements, Heatley said. When the bird attempts to clean its feathers, it ingests oil, making its stomach upset and damaging its kidneys and intestinal tract.

The bird is on antibiotics and began eating on its own Tuesday. The loon will likely be sent to a facility in Houston to be washed Thursday, Schmalz said.

"You don't want them to preen the oil, but you also don't want to wash too soon," Schmalz said.

Washing the bird too soon could put it in shock, she said.

"Birds are difficult. It's easier to wash turtles. Birds are fragile," Schmalz said.



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