Gathering of Birds at Oakland Airport Probably an Act of Nature

Leading Seabird expert Jay Holcomb, Executive Director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC), has offered an explanation for why thousands of birds were in Oyster Bay by the Oakland Airport and unable to be dispersed.

The shooting of birds on Christmas Eve at the Oakland Airport by the USDA left untold numbers dead and many injured on the beaches causing alarm to the public and even California Fish & Game wondering what happened. As news reports surfaced, none asked the most important question; why were thousands of birds gathered in Oyster Bay and why were they unable to be dispersed?

Holcomb is offering an explanation with the hope of educating the “expert” who made the following statement to the press following the shootings: “The birds were focused on something in the water at the end of the runway,” USDA Wildlife Services spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said.

The most likely explanation for what the birds were focused on in the water is an act of nature commonly referred to as a “bait ball,” said Jay Holcomb, a leading expert on the behavior of water birds. “A bait ball is a term used for a school of fish that swim tightly together like a moving ball. It is often associated with bait fish, herring, smelt, etc. hence a bait ball. When bait balls happen they attract birds and marine mammals who take the opportunity to feed. Bait balls move, and the birds move with them. A question to ask is did the birds disperse after some were shot? It’s unlikely and if they did it was most likely due to the moving fish. The only way to disrupt a bait ball would be to disperse the fish, not the birds.” Birds like pelicans dive from the air to catch the fish but cormorants and most other fish eating birds do not.

IBRRC was contacted late on December 23rd and was asked to assist in capturing injured birds south of the Oakland airport. Five birds with gun shot wounds were transported to IBRRC’s hospital in Fairfield. Three died and two are in guarded condition.

Holcomb says IBRRC supports any and all humane methods to haze birds away from airports to insure human safely. If these methods are not effective and government officials approve the killing of birds near an airport, it is our opinion that this must be done quickly, professionally and humanely. This also means that the bodies of dead birds should be picked up and any live injured birds should be humanely euthanized.

In the case of the Oyster Point incident local authorities were not informed that birds would be shot. At least 60 birds of various fish eating species, including brown pelicans, cormorants and gulls were shot and their bodies left floating in the area creating a concern that a poaching incident had occurred. Additionally a number of live injured birds with bloody broken wings and other injuries were found by the public creating an unnecessary incident that created emotional stress to people’s lives and forced IBRRC to pick up the cost of capturing the birds and caring for survivors.

“The chance of a bait ball occurring again in that location is rare. Should it happen again the airport biologist will hopefully recognize that this is an act of nature, just like the weather, allow the fish and birds to move off and make decisions accordingly.”