Early last week the staff at a food factory in Wales made a startling discovery: a bright orange Herring Gull. It wasn’t a natural anomaly, as this gull hadn’t come by its coloration honestly. Instead, it had fallen into a waste vat of chicken tikka masala, a staple of Anglo-Indian cuisine.
How the bird managed to papadump itself into a giant vat of curry isn’t quite clear, but it’s likely that it was scavenging for food. Gulls are cheerfully omnivorous, so it wouldn’t be out of character for one to be kebabing for chicken. The poori animal probably fell into the masala by accident and got its feathers saagy with sauce. At that point, despite the comical nature of the incident, the bird’s life was put in a naan-trivial amount of danger.
A dip into a spicy dish isn’t the kind of widespread environmental disaster that, say, the Deepwater Horizon spill posed. But to the bird (nicknamed Gullfrazi by its rescuers) it was calamity enough. Fortunately, the staff of a wildlife hospital was able to save the gull's life. We tried to chaat with the hospital's staff, but were unable to reach them in time for publication. They probably weren’t trying to be aloof; the time difference makes communication awkward. Instead, we vindalooped in Paige Davis, a naturalist and animal-rescue worker at the World Bird Sanctuary in Missouri, to see what she had to say on the mattar.
On a microscopic level, feathers have tiny, hooked barbs that interlock to keep a bird both waterproofed and temperature-controlled. Oil, be it crude from a leaking well or grease from a delicious curry, mats feathers and tangles these barbs, resulting in a loss of both insulation and seaworthiness. Once their feathers have been covered in excess oil, most birds will attempt to clean themselves by preening, typically to the exclusion of all other survival behavior, including eating, sleeping, and avoiding predators. In the process, they are likely to poison themselves by ingesting whatever it is that's gunking up their feathers. If that doesn’t kill them, starvation or exposure usually will.
There's a shocking lack of scientific literature on the effects of avian immersion in Indian takeout, but according to Davis, rescue workers would have to treat the grease in the sauce much like oil from a spill. Gullfrazi would have to be washed several times with water and dish detergent and then kept in rehab until it regains its natural waterproofing and recovers from whatever trauma or starvation it experienced. According to reports, Gullfrazi’s cleanup went well and the savory-smelling gull is on the road to recovery.
All joking aside, Gullfrazi's story has a happy ending, but it could have been a tragedy if it had gone another way. Even seemingly benign industrial waste can be dangerous to wildlife, and it's our responsibility to keep the rest of the natural world safe from our activities.
That said, if you’re hungry for Indian food after reading this piece, don’t feel guilty. We definitely were after writing it. But just this once, maybe skip the chicken tikka. There’s no sense in tempting fate.