We’ve all seen the images of sea birds covered in oil following shipping disasters. But this a potential hazard facing birds further in land as well.

From time to time rivers and lakes can also be affected by pollution. This isn’t always cause for concern. There is a phenomena known as “urban run off” which occurs after heavy rainfall. Essentially, the rain washes the oil from the roads down the drains and into rivers. The water then gets the tell tale light reflecting film on it and looks like it is severely polluted. In fact this level of contamination is unlikely to cause the birds any real harm.

If, however, you notice a strong smell of oil or the birds appear dirty or waterlogged then there may be a problem. You should notify both a local wildlife rescue and the Environment Agency.


Do not attempt to capture large birds such as swans and geese yourself. Whilst tales of swans breaking your arm are somewhat exaggerated these are big, powerful birds who could certainly cause a few bruises and should only be handled by experts.

Smaller birds such as ducks and moorhens can be caught quite safely, though they can give a fairly good peck so you may wish to use gloves or a towel. It is wise to point the rear end away from you if possible as they have a habit of relieving themselves when scared and this will be liquid and travelling at a surprising velocity! If the bird is still mobile, you do need to be careful not to scare it back into the water or into flying away so, if you are not sure you can pick the bird up easily, it’s best to seek assistance from experienced rescuers.


A large, sturdy cardboard box may be sufficient here but a carry box designed for cats might be better if the bird is still lively and determined. If using a cardboard box, ensure the lid is secured to prevent escape and make sure to provide air holes. Place the box somewhere warm and quiet and keep children and pets away. If it’s a baby bird, please minimise your contact with the baby as much as possible as they imprint very easily.

It is not generally necessary or advisable to provide food and water if you are getting the bird to a rescue quickly. Never attempt to force feed water to a bird as it is very easy to drown them and never offer cow’s milk or alcohol.

It is not necessary, and would likely be harmful, to allow a waterfowl casualty to bathe. Oiled, unwell and baby water birds may not have the waterproofing needed to swim without becoming water logged and may then become hypothermic if allowed to get wet. If you pick up a baby who is wet, especially if it appears weak, it may be beneficial to gently dry them with a warm (not hot) hair dryer. Whilst it is common knowledge that oiled birds are bathed with washing up liquid, please do not attempt this yourself. It is vital that the bird is stabilised and rehydrated first.

It is likely that the bird will be shocked or weakened so supplementary heat can be very helpful in many cases and is essential for fluffy babies and oiled birds which will not be able to regulate their own temperature. You can put a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel at one end of the box, either inside, underneath or next to the box, ensuring the bird can get away from the heat if it wants to. If the bird begins to pant, remove the heat source immediately.

NB: this advice is designed to cover the first couple of hours or overnight. If you are not able to get the animal to a wildlife rescue promptly, please at least speak to someone by phone for further advice about care beyond this period. If you want to care for the casualty yourself rather than taking it to a rescue, please read the information here.