What Effect Does Oil have on Birds?

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Updated on Mar 07, 2010


Life Science


Middle and High School

Difficulty of Project



Less than $50

Safety Issues


Material Availability

A molted feather obtained from a chicken or other pet bird. A microscope can be borrowed or purchased. Other materials are readily found at home or can be purchased.

Approximate Time Required to Complete the Project

One day to one week


Lean about what makes a bird waterproof (hint – it is not the oil gland), and how oil affects a bird’s waterproofing. With more in depth research, the student will learn how else oil affects the bird, internally and externally.

  • Molted feather must be from a chicken or other pet bird. Do not collect wild bird feathers, as this is illegal.
  • Microscope
  • Vegetable oil
  • Display board
  • Photographs of oiled birds
  • Diagrams


Our dependence on petroleum oil has unfortunate consequences for the environment and wildlife. When oil spills into waterways, birds that come in contact with the oil instantly lose their waterproofing and often do not survive without human help. Use this project to learn what makes a bird waterproof, how just a single drop of oil spilled into the environment damages a bird’s feather structure and other harmful effects of oil on birds. When researching this project you will find many that state that the uropygial gland, or oil gland, alone makes the feathers waterproof – this is a common misconception, even amongst experts – investigate further to discover the role of the uropygial gland.
Research Questions
  • How do feathers make a bird waterproof?
  • What is the structure of a feather when viewed under a microscope?
  • What does the uropygial gland do for feathers?
  • What species of birds have a reduced or completely lack a uropygial gland? What type of habitat do they live in?
  • What happens to a feather contaminated with oil?
  • Does petroleum oil affect a bird in other ways besides damaging the feathers?
Terms, Concepts and Questions to Start Background Research
  • Wildlife Rehabilitation – the act of caring for, and treating, injured and sick native wild animals with the intention of rereleasing the animal back into its native habitat
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 – Treaty between the U.S., Canada and other countries that protects native birds making it illegal in part to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess,. . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird." (16 U.S.C. 703)
  • Waterproof – when a bird has a protective coat that prevents water from reaching the skin and traps an insulating layer of air under the feathers.
  • Uropygial gland – a gland located at the base of the tail found in most species of birds that secretes and oily substance.

  • Conduct background research on waterproofing and the effects of oil on birds.
  • Run your fingers along the feather to align the feather and then to break up the feather. Look at the feather under a microscope after aligning the feather and after breaking it up. Diagram the results of each.
  • Put a drop of vegetable oil on the feather and gently rub it in with your finger. This replicates how a bird would try to preen itself in an attempt to clean the oil off. What happens? Look at the oil spot under a microscope and diagram what you see.
  • Make a display presenting your research and experiment results. Include an undamaged feather and oiled feather to show.


IBRRC: How Oil Affects Birds http://www.ibrrc.org/oil_affects.html

Oiled Wildlife Care Network: Effects of Oil on Wildlife http://www.owcn.org/about-oiled-wildlife/effects-of-oil-on-wildlife

Rochester Institute of Technology: Flightless Cormorant http://people.rit.edu/rhrsbi/GalapagosPages/Cormorant.html

Unusual feather structure allows partial plumage wettability in diving great cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo http://www.cefe.cnrs.fr/esp/publis/DG/GremilletJAB2005.pdf

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council http://www.iwrc-online.org

Jennifer L. Tuso has over 10 years experience developing and teaching science enrichment programs to all ages, from preschoolers to high school students. She holds a degree in Environmental Studies with a minor in Biology from CSUS. As a freelance writer, she enjoys sharing her teaching experiences, mishaps and adventures.

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