Find the Best Way to Clean Oil off Bird Feathers
A student dips feather into a bowl of mixed oil and water.
Here's a feather freshly dipped into oil (we mixed cocoa powder into the oil, so it looks dark in this picture).
A student with a selection of feathers and a bowl of mixed water and oil.
Here's an oiled feather being cleaned in cold water.

In this experiment for elementary school students, you'll look at the way oil affects bird feathers, and try different cleanup methods to find out which works best.

Materials

  • Clean, dry feathers (good places to find feathers are beaches, parks, and pet stores)
  • Four bowls
  • Vegetable oil
  • Dish-washing detergent
  • Hot, cold, and room-temperature water (the hot water should be about the same temperature you'd use to wash dishes and not too hot to put your hands in)
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder (optional)
     

Instructions

1. Take a look at the feathers you've collected, then try to answer the following questions:

 

2. Get a bowl and some vegetable oil.

If you'd like, you can mix a little cocoa powder into the vegetable oil to make it show up better and look more like crude oil.

 

3. Fill the bowl with room-temperature water to an inch or two below the rim. Pour some oil on the water.

The oil will spread out over the surface of the water.

 

4. Dip some of your feathers into the oil on the water.

You're imitating what happens when a bird lands on an oil slick on the ocean.
 

5. Take a look at the feathers now, and then try to answer the following questions:

 

6. Now try three methods of cleaning feathers:

  • Cold water washing. Put some cold water in a bowl, and then try washing some of the oiled feathers in it. Watch what happens.
  • Hot water washing. Put some hot water in a bowl, and then try washing some of the oiled feathers in it. Watch what happens.
  • Washing with detergent. Put some hot water and detergent in a bowl, and then try washing some of the oiled feathers in it. Watch what happens.

Which method worked best? Imagine that you're washing a real, live bird that has been oiled. What things would you need to think about? Which method would you choose to clean the bird? [possible answers]
 

Cleaning Up

The materials for this experiment are all non-toxic. You can put the feathers in the trash and pour the vegetable oil–water mixture down the sink once you've finished your experiment.
 

Want to Find Out More?

Try another experiment to observe how oil acts in water, or explore other ways to learn about the ocean.