Birds always come first

From Jay Holcomb, IBRRC’s Executive Director:

Many of you are asking, “What can I do to help during the oils spill and beyond?” We hope you will read this and that it will help answer some of your questions. We have a very small staff and we are attending to our patients, so the phone at our clinic may go unanswered. At IBRRC, the birds come first.

Here is some concise information about what is going on behind the scenes:

The spill is managed by the California Department of Fish & Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN). href=”” target=”_blank”>IBRRC, a key participating member of the OWCN, manages the two large regional oiled bird rehabilitation centers in the state based in Cordelia, The San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care Center and San Pedro, The Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center.

State and Federal Park wardens and employees are also assisting in the effort. Members of IBRRC’s oil spill response team are a key part of OWCN’s efforts to rescue and care of oil spill victims. Our response team includes wildlife rescue professionals who have trained and responded throughout the world.

As of Thursday evening, November 15th, 951 live birds are in care at The San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care Center in Cordelia. Members of our team are working extremely hard to find and save as many avian victims as humanely possible. We’ve been able to wash nearly 400 birds of oil.

Although it is heartbreaking to have an oil spill happen in our own backyard, there is one good factor and that is that animals affected by this spill, including marine mammals, are being cared for by people who are the leading experts in the field of oiled wildlife rehabilitation. We are passionate and dedicated to helping aquatic birds and waterfowl. It’s what we do and if you can’t do the work, then support the people who do. That’s really what matters.

Oiled birds are covered in a thick heavy petroleum substance. They are hypothermic. They beach themselves because they are cold Water birds stay warm because their feathers act as insulation. When oil gets on their feathers and sticks to their body, it is like a rip in a diver’s wetsuit. They attempt to preen the oil off instead of feeding and eventually they become cold (hypothermic) and attempt to get out of the water. Some birds cannot walk on land due to the placement of their legs. Rescuers are viewed as predators, so the birds become even more stressed when rescue attempts are made. The oil may also cause skin and eye irritation.

It’s been documented that even a small spot of oil on the bird’s feathers can kill a seabird. Please read: How oil affects birds.

The first thing wildlife professionals do is warm the birds and give them fluids because they are assumed dehydrated, and keep them in a dark quiet box that has ventilation. Here’s our procedures in detail. Here’s our procedures in detail.

When they are stable enough for transport, they are driven to IBRRC which is located in the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center at 4369 Cordelia Road in Cordelia, CA.

Upon intake, the birds undergo specific procedures required for oil spill victims, including being numbered and photographed. Blood work is done to determine their internal condition. They are weighed, tube fed fluids and put into warm boxes in an area separate from non-oiled birds.

The birds are not washed until they meet specific criteria established for spill victims of their species. This includes determination through blood work, weight and observation of the bird’s behavior to determine if the bird is strong enough to endure washing, a stressful experience that can take up to half an hour. Read Frequently Asked Questions

Birds are washed with Dawn dishwashing liquid using special nozzles, toothbrushes and Waterpiks. Dawn is used because it works the best and fastest removing oil from feathers while being safe for the birds and people washing them. Proctor and Gamble the makers of Dawn donate many of their products to IBRRC and have for many years. See story

After rinsing, they are placed in quiet covered boxes with warm air dryers. They begin to preen their feathers back into place and rest. They are checked continually to make sure all the oil has been removed. They then go into warm water therapy pools to continue preening and realigning their feathers. When deemed strong and waterproof, they will be placed in the cold water pools to self feed and rehabilitate. When release criteria are met, they are banded and released into non-spill affected areas.

This labor of love is backbreaking work, but we love what we do. If you want to help us here are some things you can do now:

DONATE YOUR TIME: There is nothing more valuable than your time. Please fill out our online volunteer application. If you have special skills please note them. If we need you, we will call you. Be patient, we have a large number of volunteers helping already, but we may need more. This depends on how long the spill lasts and the number of birds we get in.

DONATE MONEY:Consider contributing as an annual donor to a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation organizations like The International Bird Rescue Research Center, IBRRC. For a full list of participating members of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, OWCN,, go to the OWCN website list. See also the full list of wildlife rehabilitation organizations that help all of California’s wildlife, you can find it on the website for California Council for Wildlife Rehabilitators (CCWR).

DONATE ITEMS: We often need supplies, towels, tools, services and labor. Please fill out what you can provide on the volunteer form. If you’re a massage therapist or you’re good at organizing coffee and food donations or you have other practical skills to help the army of volunteers get through this spill, please offer to help.

WINGS ON WHEELS and other IBRRC ongoing efforts to care for California’s wildlife: :
We are desperate for help in this program! Please visit our webpage and determine if you can help transport birds from other centers to our center in Cordelia. Driver’s needed

On behalf of our staff, the hundreds of volunteers helping during this spill, thank you!

– Jay Holcomb, IBRRC Executive Director

[Editor’s note: Jay Holcomb has 35 years of oil spill experience and leads bird rescue’s highly experienced wildlife responders.]

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is a legislatively mandated program within The California Fish and Game, Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) which strives to ensure that wildlife exposed to petroleum products in the environment receive the best achievable treatment by providing access to permanent wildlife rehabilitation facilities and trained personnel for oil spill response within California. California’s two key centers, located in Cordelia and San Pedro, California are managed by International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) under the direction of Jay Holcomb. The OWCN is managed statewide by the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, a unit of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine under the direction of Dr. Mike Ziccardi.

2 thoughts on “Birds always come first”

  1. Thank you for posting this information. I was at Ocean Beach this morning 11/13, at 730 am. I found a Western Grebe that was affected by oil, although not completely covered. I hailed the volunteer staff who were placing the refuse bins along the beach. They reported the bird to the single park ranger present who said that even she herself was not qualified to rescue the bird by putting it into a bird box. I stayed with the Grebe for an hour watching it attempt to get into the water and feed. Twice it did make it into the water, but it was overcome by the cross tide and eventually washed up again. I was incensed that it took an hour, and me flagging down an official law marshall of some kind on an ATV to actually get something happening. From where I was standing I could see the set up of the beach cleaning center, a 5 minute walk from me. That it took an hour was ridiculous. That there was not a single qualified person at that location to rescue wildlife was tragic and incomprehensible and negligent, given that the location is a refuge for birds such as the Snowy Plover. Eventually, after being prodded by the marshall, the park ranger officer succumbed to pressure and picked up the poor bird. She of treated me as if I were the enemy, making her life hard. But I ask anyone who reads this, why was this bird’s life not important enough to attend to sooner than an hour? It isn’t as though there were hundreds of birds here.

    This is why citizens go ahead and ignore official rules to keeps hands off hurt wildlife, because there is such negligence by the responsible agency.

    It so happened that an AP photographer was there and shot footage of the Grebe attempting to swim away and be beaten back to shore by the waves. He interviewed me, and stuck around a while. Even he saw after ten minutes that though the bird could stay in the water somewhat, it wasn’t long.

    What bothered me was that the bird was being ignored. I had seen the video of your group telling us that slightly oiled birds die more often becasue they don’t get rescued as quickly as the fully tarred birds. I can see the truth in this. Superficially this bird may have looked okay if you saw it swimming and left it at that.

    I felt angry that the NPS ranger treated me as though I were a problem, rather than her taking responsibility for the welfare of the animal. If she, a representative of the agency overseeing the clean up at this beach couldn’t doi something immediately about this bird, then there is a huge problem. It makes me want to give up my day job and be an advocate for wildlife.

    Shame on the National Park Service. Shame on them.

  2. Fantastic job you guys are doing! I’m a South African currently living in Zambia. I started a blog ( year ago when I moved up here about my life in Zambia. I don’t do anything as spectacular as you guys but I’ve had the most amazing opportunities here to rehabilitate some birds who got injured, etc. Unfortunately I don’t have any training or experience in this line of things so I have to rely on my common sense. It is the most rewarding thing to know that you’ve managed to give one of God’s unique and amazing creatures a chance to survive. Keep up the good work.

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