Jay Holcomb, 1951-2014

FAIRFIELD, Calif. (June 11, 2014) — International Bird Rescue executive director Jay Holcomb, an icon in the world of wildlife rehabilitation and a relentless pioneer in oiled wildlife care since the 1970s, has died. He was 63.

Holcomb passed away in Modesto, Calif. on June 10, 2014, surrounded by friends and family members. The cause of death was kidney cancer, according to Holcomb’s family.

Under his direction, International Bird Rescue grew into one of the world’s preeminent wildlife organizations, caring for animals affected by large-scale oil spills such as Exxon Valdez in 1989 and the Gulf Spill in 2010, where Holcomb and his team cared for pelicans, gannets and other birds harmed by the environmental disaster.

Donate to Jay Holcomb Memorial Fund

“For decades, Jay was a singular force in saving wild birds everywhere, giving a voice to the animals who need it most,” said Susan Kaveggia, board chair of International Bird Rescue. “We can never replace him. But we can follow in his footsteps and continue to inspire others to care for wildlife in his memory.”

“Jay was insistent, he was persistent, a force of nature.” Susan Kaveggia, Board Chair of International Bird Rescue

Holcomb began his career in wildlife rehabilitation over 40 years ago, having assisted in efforts to help birds affected by a large oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 1971 — an environmental catastrophe that led to the founding later that year of International Bird Rescue Research Center (the organization shortened its name to International Bird Rescue in 2010).

Photo of Jay Holcomb holding and oiled Brown Pelican
Jay Holcomb holding and oiled Brown Pelican during the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill. Photo: International Bird Rescue

Holcomb became executive director of International Bird Rescue in 1986 and has held director and director emeritus roles since then. During his leadership, the organization led or co-led oiled wildlife efforts at some of the world’s largest oil spill emergencies, from the MV Erika Spill in France to the Treasure Spill in South Africa. During the Gulf Spill in 2010, International Bird Rescue’s response team was mobilized in four states.

“I’ve devoted my career to wildlife rehabilitation,” Holcomb wrote in his organization’s 2013 annual report. “It’s an often unsung, crisis-based field, and the challenges in the work are many. But I can’t think of anything more rewarding I could have done with my life.”

In addition to his many published contributions to oiled wildlife care research, Holcomb launched the Blue-Banded Pelican Project in 2009 to better track the post-release success of California Brown Pelicans cared for at International Bird Rescue’s two centers in California. He was a 2010 recipient of Oceana’s Ocean Heroes Award and the 2010 John Muir Conservationist of the Year Award for his work. Holcomb also received the 1996 National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) Lifetime Achievement Award.

A staunch defender of global efforts to care for wildlife impacted by oil spills, Holcomb was featured in the 2011 Emmy Award-winning documentary Saving Pelican 895 about International Bird Rescue’s efforts to save oiled birds in the Gulf spill.

Populations are made up of individuals, and if you start looking at individuals as if they’re not important, then ultimately the population becomes unimportant,” Holcomb said of his work in the film.

Jay Burch Holcomb was born in San Francisco on April 16, 1951 and lived there until he was 9 years old. His family then moved to San Anselmo in Marin County.

“Very early in my life, I became aware that I had a sense of purpose that I could not shake — nor did I want to — so I just lived as I was compelled to,” Holcomb recalled in 2011. “At age 5 or so, I became aware of an intense desire to help animals but had no idea how to make it happen. I held that knowingness in my mind, knew it would happen, and basically allowed it to unfold in front of me.”

After graduating from high school, Holcomb worked at the Marin Humane Society before joining International Photo of Jay Holcomb in 1970s bottle feeding a raccoonBird Rescue, founded in 1971 by Alice Berkner. “Alice and I agreed that this organization was and should be for the birds and about the birds, with every action taken to be in their best interest,” Holcomb told Bay Nature magazine in 2010. “In 40 years, we have never wavered from that promise.”

Holcomb is survived by his mother, Joan Finney, two sisters, Judy Craven and Marianne Groth; brother, Don Stauffer; niece, Wendy Massey; nephew, Kenneth Craven; goddaughter, Elizabeth Russell; and close friends, Mark Russell and Russ Curtis.

Per his wishes, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to a memorial fund established in Holcomb’s name benefiting wildlife rescue efforts at International Bird Rescue. Go here: Jay Holcomb Memorial Fund.

If you prefer to give by check, contributions may be mailed to:

International Bird Rescue
Attn: Jay Holcomb Memorial Fund
4369 Cordelia Road
Fairfield, CA 94534

Barbara Callahan, a longtime senior staff member of International Bird Rescue who trained under Holcomb and serves as global response director, has been appointed interim executive director of the organization by the board of directors.

A public memorial is planned, details of which will be announced soon.

Our original post on the news of Jay’s death has a comment thread of dozens of people whose lives Jay touched. Click here to leave your own remembrance.

More obituaries and remembrances:

Associated Press: Jay Holcomb, Pioneer in Bird Rescue, Dies at 63

Los Angeles Times: Jay Holcomb, longtime leader in seabird rescue and rehab, dies at 63

San Francisco Chronicle: Jay Holcomb, beloved bird rescuer, dead at 63

Daily Breeze: Jay Holcomb, 1951-2014: International Bird Rescue center director dies at the age of 63

Jay’s Bird Blog

Jay with Bird Rescue founder Alice Berkner

Photo of Jay Holcomb releasing cleaned penguins in 2000 after the Treasure Oil Spill in Cape Town, SA
Jay Holcomb led an effort in 2000 to help save more than 20,000 oiled African Penguins at the Treasure Oil Spill in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Jon Hrusa/IFAW

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Jay at a KNX-1070 open house event at Bird Resscue’s Los Angeles wildlife center, 2013

17 thoughts on “Jay Holcomb, 1951-2014”

  1. Jay will truly be missed … by me … and by many other humans, birds and other wild creatures. I first met Jay during the the SF Bay oil spill of 1971 and we have been good friends ever since. He was truly a pioneer in caring for and rehabilitating oiled wild birds. What a shocking loss.

  2. An enormous loss ~ On behalf of our foundation and our love of wildlife ~ we salute you, Jay ~ for caring so much ~ and for being here with us on our magnificent planet ~

  3. Jay, we know you are watching over all of us from above …. and still caring for all of the animals, just from a new location….. Do not fret, we will continue your journey, your efforts, your passion for to help the animals will live on … We will miss you, but you are forever in our hearts. I know we will see you again …. just meet us at the pearly white gates as we cross over (no doubt holding a bird in hand !!!)…. Thank you for everything Jay… We love you dearly….. my sincerest condolences to the family…… RIP…..

  4. Jay was a wonderful man with a huge heart, so dedicated, with a great sense of humor. He was so articulate and spoke eloquently on behalf of the birds that matter so much to so many of us. I loved him and working with him on the board of IWRC. He was a great mentor and model for many.

  5. I am grateful to have learned how to wash birds from Jay. We are all so much better for having had him in our life, and so are the animals! We must continue his mission. We all have to remember to care for all of the wonderful animals that share our world.

  6. It is very sad to learn of Jay’s illness and passing. His efforts and contributions to saving birds and educating many will have a long lasting impact. My sincere sympathy goes to his family and close friends.

  7. A heartbreaking loss. This dear, great man gave his heart to the survival of the avian world that we all love and treasure. During local oil spills, he was always there working, open to talking with volunteers.
    On one spill, I was mopping the floor in the big warming room, not yet knowing how to do anything else. I looked up to see how much more I had to wash. There was Jay mopping the opposite side.
    During international spills, we knew that Jay would guide IBR’s emergency response to save as many birds as possible. He made belonging to IBR an honor.

  8. Jay, did not know you but what a wonderful man you were. Bless you for all the lives you saved, I only wish you could have lived a long life. Thank you for all you gave. Marilyn

  9. This week, the wildlife rehabilitation community lost two of its giants; and, many of us have lost two valued friends. Jay Holcomb of IBRC, and Len Souci, founder of New Jersey’s Raptor Trust, left this world within 48 hours of each other. It is a double blow to our community of wildlife care providers and advocates, but it is also a reminder of the legacy of those who blazed the trail for today’s rapidly expanding fields of wildlife medicine and wildlife rehabilitation. Both Jay and Len stood for professionalism and competence, unapologetically defending the value of providing care for individual animals as a valid and necessary part of a comprehensive conservation ethic and wildlife protection program. Both leave behind organizations that are strong and vital, whose contributions will continue long after their respective founders have left us. The lives and many contributions of these two great men should serve as examples to the rest of us, to do what we can, to do it well, and to build something greater than ourselves. Farewell, friends. Thank you for the lives you led. Thank you for what you leave behind.

    Ed Clark, co-founder and President
    Wildlife Center of Virginia

  10. I first met Jay at the bird and otter rescue center, set up in the first days of the EXXON VALDEZ response. My first role, coordinating volunteers, quickly evolved into organizing recovery and providing logistics for all EXXON VALDEZ animal rescue and scientific work. It was a tribute to Alice and Jay that there was never any question about just doing whatever needed to be done. Their organization, IBRRC, was the ultimate “just do it”, entertain questions later, outfit. We morphed the initial fishing vessel animal recovery operation to include a fleet of amphibious float planes, allowing the vessels to stay on scene recovering, while the planes transported oiled wildlife. We separated out the otter rescue center and grew the bird recovery into multiple locations and recovery fleets as the oil spread, all the while attempting to keep track of recovery statistics, with the myriad changes as status of injured birds changed. It was an overwhelming challenge, always handled with grace, humor and sensitivity by Jay. He will be always loved and forever missed.

  11. May all humans who have had the priviledge of knowing and working with Jay, and all animals that have benefited from his expertise remember him always. I had the opportunity to meet him while volunteering at I.B.R.R.C San Pedro. The world is a better place because of him. He will be greatly missed.

  12. A huge loss to the bird community and all his friends and family. I feel privileged to have known him and to have learnt so much from him. His smile and his passion will never be forgotten. With loving kindness I send wishes to his loved ones in this time of great sadness.

    Libby Hall,
    Taronga Wildlife Hospital.

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