Pioneers in oiled aquatic bird care

Photo of Oiled Surf Scoter rescued in 1971 spill on San Francisco Bay.
Oiled Surf Scoter in 1971 found near Land’s End in San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge is in the background.

On January 18, 1971, two Standard Oil tankers collided near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, resulting in a spill that covered 50 miles of coastline with 2,700 cubic tons of crude oil. About 7,000 birds were oiled by the spill. Volunteers collected nearly 4,300 of them, mainly Western Grebes and Scoters, and brought them to makeshift rehabilitation centers. Only about 300 were released – in part given the lack of established oiled bird rehabilitation practices at the time.

“There were dying birds everywhere and no one knew what to do. It was as horrible as you can imagine,” Jay Holcomb, International Bird Rescue’s executive director, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012. “It was then that we realized there needs to be an organized attempt for their care.”

Photo of Alice Berkner with a White Pelican, International Bird Rescue founder
Bird Rescue Founder Alice Berkner with White Pelican. Read her Founder’s Story

While documented rehabilitation efforts of oiled seabirds in California dates back to the 1940s, the 1971 oil spill in San Francisco Bay that included two Standard Oil tankers, the Arizona & Oregon Standard, and the 1969 Santa Barbara/Union Platform A Spill that preceded it, spurred new efforts to create permanent rehabilitation facilities and programs, as well as to monitor seabird mortality resulting from spills. Alice Berkner, a retired nurse and animal lover who assisted in oiled bird rehabilitation following the Standard Oil accident, officially founded International Bird Rescue – originally called International Bird Rescue Research Center – on April 20, 1971.

I felt it important to develop a cleaning technology that could lessen impact on oiled, endangered and threatened species – Alice Berkner, Founder, International Bird Rescue

The early ethos of Berkner’s organization was one of seabird conservation through partnership with the oil industry. “My attitude was not that of the stereotypical environmentalist of that time, but that of a consumer who accepted responsibility for what could result from petroleum consumption on an individual and even species level,” Berkner recalled. “I felt it important to develop a cleaning technology that could lessen impact on oiled, endangered and threatened species, and that by responding to spills involving more numerous species, precarious populations of birds would not be subject to experimentation when oiling occurred.”

By the mid-1980s, International Bird Rescue had become a leading expert in the wildlife rehabilitation field, pioneering new techniques and co-publishing such guides as Rehabilitating Oiled Seabirds: A Field Manual (1986). Advancements made included best practices for washing oiled birds, warm water pool therapy, and net bottom cages to help prevent sternum and hock lesions in diving birds, auks, and other aquatic species.

International Bird Rescue staff spent six months managing three bird centers and two search-and-collection programs in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, where 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, killing between 100,000 and 250,000 seabirds. Exxon Valdez was the first major spill where field stabilization and transport were utilized extensively in oiled wildlife care.

Several bills passed in California in the mid-1990s led to the creation of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), formed as part of the Office of Spill Prevention and Response and administered by the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. New rehabilitation facilities, such as those currently managed by International Bird Rescue, were designed to prevent disease transmission among avian patients and to minimize historic challenges associated with animal husbandry.

African Penguins released in Cape Town, South Africa, after being cleaned of oil at the 2000 Treasure Spill. Photo: Jon Hrusa-IFAW

During the 2000 Treasure Spill near Cape Town, South Africa, International Bird Rescue was mobilized to assist in a massive effort to wash and rehabilitate more than 20,000 oiled African penguins. More than 90% of the oiled birds captured were released.

International Bird Rescue saw perhaps the most extensive international attention of its near-40-year existence in 2010 following the explosion of Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion and resulting fire on April 20, 2010 killed 11 workers and caused a sea-floor oil gusher that spewed 4.9 million barrels of crude oil before the wellhead was capped on July 15, 2010. The disaster remains the largest accidental marine oil spill in petroleum industry history.

International Bird Rescue teamed up with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, the lead oiled wildlife organization on the ground, to co-manage oiled bird rehabilitation centers in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida as part of a large-scale response to the incident that involved federal and state agencies, industry, and non-governmental organizations. More than 8,000 oiled birds were captured and collected both dead and alive, according to government figures, with 1,246 birds released back into the wild.

Jay Holcomb, past Bird Rescue Executive Director, teams up to wash an oiled Brown Pelican in Venice, Louisiana at the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill response.

International Bird Rescue’s efforts to save oiled birds during the spill were prominently featured in the Emmy Award-winning HBO documentary Saving Pelican 895, which chronicled the step-by-step rehabilitation efforts of a single juvenile brown pelican.

Post-Deepwater Horizon oil spills that International Bird Rescue has responded to include the Rena Spill in New Zealand (at the request of Massey University’s Wildlife Health Centre) and the Yellowstone River Silvertip Pipeline Spill Incident, both occurring in 2011. A bitumen release in the Alberta Tar Sands in the summer of 2013 also led to a wildlife response by International Bird Rescue in partnership with two Canadian wildlife organizations.