IMAGE: OILED BIRD
Anthony Devlin  /  AP
An oil covered guillemot awaits cleaning at an animal protection center in West Hatch, Britain, on Wednesday.
updated 1/25/2007 3:57:25 PM ET 2007-01-25T20:57:25

Wildlife workers combed a 100-mile stretch of beach Thursday, trying to rescue birds covered in oil after thousands of gallons leaked from a stricken cargo ship off England's southwest coast.

Half of the more than 1,000 birds that washed ashore in the past few days have been taken to wildlife centers around Lyme Bay, where the British ship, the MSC Napoli, was deliberately run aground last week after being damaged in a storm.

"These are very thin, very hungry birds," said Tim Thomas, a scientist with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "They've been traumatized."

Most were guillemots — diving birds particularly vulnerable because even a spot of oil can make their plumage lose its waterproofing.

Once at the wildlife centers, the birds are fed water laced with charcoal and clay to flush the oil from their stomachs, and are sheltered for up to a month before being cleaned with detergent, Thomas said. But 90 percent are expected to die within a year, he said.

Contractors removed almost a third of the ship's fuel Thursday, sucking the oil into a nearby tanker. The process was expected to last two weeks. That is longer than originally expected due to difficulties in extracting oil from the Napoli's fuel tanks, two of which remain underwater, said Tony Redding, a spokesman for Zodiac Maritime Agencies Ltd. which operates the ship.

A new estimate from the International Tanker Owners' Pollution Federation Ltd. put the amount of oil spilled between 17,000 and 30,000 gallons, Redding said.

The coast guard said the cleanup could last up to a year.

On Friday, a crane-equipped barge was expected to begin plucking the remaining 2,291 containers from the deck of the ship to prepare it to be moved to Portland, 31 miles away.

The Napoli lost 103 containers last week and 50 washed ashore to nearby Branscombe beach. Thousands of people looted the wreckage and make off with items ranging from BMW motorcycles to bags of diapers.

Police called the looting despicable, but were powerless to stop it. Under maritime law, the public can take wreckage that washes ashore as long as it is reported to authorities within 28 days.

They can sell the property if they obtain the original owner's permission _ but some items have already begun appearing on the Internet for sale.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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