David Mcnew  /  Getty Images file
Volunteers wash a western grebe rescued from an oil spill of unknown origin along the Southern California coast. In two weeks, rescuers picked up 1,400 oiled birds between Santa Barbara and Venice Beach.
updated 1/24/2005 12:01:59 PM ET 2005-01-24T17:01:59

A mysterious oil spill that killed hundreds of birds on the Southern California coast was probably not caused by natural seepage from the ocean floor, investigators said.

Officials said Friday they came to that conclusion after testing oil wiped from birds that turned up on a 90-mile stretch of coast more than a week ago.

“We’re assuming it’s not a seepage, because what we’re seeing on the birds is oil that’s weathered, not the slimy, wet stuff that comes from the ground,” said Ken Mayer of the state Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

Investigators said oil wells and pipelines near the Ventura River were a possible source, theorizing they could have become uncapped or broken during the area’s recent storms.

No single spot in the water with a high concentration of oil has been found to indicate a source for the spill, investigators said. Also perplexing is the absence of oil slicks in the water or tar balls on shore — two common signs of a spill. Officials doubt the leak came from an offshore oil platform.

More than 1,400 birds died or were injured, making the leak California’s most harmful to wildlife since a 1990 tanker spill off Orange County. The number of birds with oil on them ranges from 3,000 to 5,000, officials said.

Many of the birds are Western grebes, which live entirely on the water and build nests out of floating debris. Rescuers have also found 13 endangered brown pelicans — large, stocky diving birds about 4 feet long.

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