Every bird matters.

Perhaps you have heard this wonderful story before; it is especially pertinent to International Bird Rescue’s work:

Starfish. Photo: Pedro Lastra

An old man was walking along the beach and saw in the distance a young boy who appeared to be dancing and gyrating at the ocean’s edge. As the man got closer, he realized that the boy was not dancing at all. The tide had gone out, beaching thousands and thousands of starfish. The boy was throwing starfish one after the other back into the ocean so that they might survive.

“Son, you can’t possibly throw all of those starfish back. How can what you are doing possibly matter,” the old man asked.

As the boy threw yet another starfish back into the safety of the ocean, he replied, “it mattered to that one.”

That story captures the heart and soul of International Bird Rescue’s work: it matters to every bird we save.

Everyone should clean up their own messes

Oiled Brown Pelican, before and after cleaning, at the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Photos: International Bird Rescue

As a society that remains reliant on petroleum products, we all bear a responsibility for the impact that spilled oil can have on wildlife and the environment, and we should do everything possible to minimize harm or loss of life. One of International Bird Rescue’s jobs is to capture, clean, and rehabilitate oiled aquatic birds and other animals so they can be released back into the wild. In many cases, we work with oil companies to mitigate the damage caused by accidents, since countries like Australia, Brazil, England, the United States and South Africa have laws in place requiring the responsible party to pay for clean-up. We serve as partners for governmental agencies and other non-profit organizations in responding to oil spills.

We also care for birds impacted by natural oil seeps, small-scale wildlife mishaps at refineries, contaminated urban runoff, or other events where there is no responsible party. Our work caring for animals affected by these unfortunate everyday events simultaneously maintains our skills and advances our expertise in treating animals when larger scale events occur.  As our society transitions to more renewable energy sources, wildlife contamination will continue to be a risk – both solar and wind energy generation have moving parts that need lubricants and coolants that are hazardous to wildlife. See: How Oil Affects Birds

Protecting public health

Petroleum products are well known as hazardous materials that people should not be exposed to without the right safety equipment. They can cause all sorts of health problems from respiratory or skin irritation to cancer. Unfortunately, when people find an animal covered in a harmful substance, their instinct is to help the animal right away. This overwhelming urge to help a suffering creature can be a wonderful thing but it can also result in people unknowingly exposing themselves and their children to chemical hazards. We know that if oiled animals are not quickly rescued and cared for by professionals, the general public will attempt to do it themselves. At International Bird Rescue, we have the knowledge and skill to compassionately care for contaminated animals with human safety as our top priority.

Stopping the spread of oil up the food chain

Photo oiled Snowy Plover
Oiled Snowy Plover rescued at 2021 Orange County pipeline spill. Photo: OWCN/UC Davis

As part of the clean-up operation after an oil spill, the oil is removed from the environment; this includes any oiled wildlife, dead or alive. By getting oiled wildlife out of the field quickly, we can help prevent “secondary oiling,” where clean animals unknowingly prey upon oiled ones and become contaminated or ill. Quick response also enables animals to be rescued while they are the best physical shape and have the best prognosis for recovery.

Saved birds go on to have families

When we rescue an animal, there are ripple effects that go well beyond that individual. Each animal returned to the wild can rejoin the wild population, helping to preserve future generations. This is especially critical with threatened and endangered species like Western Snowy Plovers, where each individual of a small population carries genetic diversity critical to rebuilding a healthy and resilient population.We know from our banding program data that rehabilitated birds can go on to live many years after release. Our work gives them a second chance to move their genetics into the future and contribute to their species’ long-term survival.

But isn’t it better to save habitat than individuals?

Shouldn’t we do both? If we as humans have caused harm to other species and wrecked their home, ethically, doesn’t it fall to us to attempt to repair the damage we cause? Of course, wild animals require a clean home to be returned to. The funds expended to care for oiled animals are not the same as funds expended for habitat conservation or damage mitigation – it is not an either/or situation. One type of action does not negate the other, and the funds are not interchangeable. Yes, it requires monetary and personnel resources to care for oiled wild animals, but that is part of the cost of using these hazardous products.

Practice makes perfect

International Bird Rescue is renowned for our leadership and expertise in the oiled wildlife recovery and rehabilitation field because our staff cares for birds 365 days a year, even when there is no large-scale crisis. By co-managing with Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) two California-based bird rescue clinics, and treating birds impacted by weather events, natural oil seep and other environmental and man-made threats, our experts are continually improving their skills, finding new and better ways of helping wildlife.

Bird Rescue’s work saves lives

In 1996, at least 300 King, Spectacled, and Stellar’s Eiders were oiled on the remote islands of the Pribilof in Alaska. Bird Rescue’s team was able to save over 80 percent of the birds and several of these individuals are known to have lived many years after rehabilitation. During the 2000 Treasure oil spill in Cape Town, South Africa, rescuers cleaned 20,000 oiled African Penguins, eventually releasing 90 percent of them, and successfully relocated another 19,500 to prevent them from becoming oiled. Research papers have concluded the Penguins’ population is 19 percent higher today than it would have been without wildlife rehabilitation in the past four decades. (1)

An evolving field

Thanks to International Bird Rescue’s research, in collaboration with numerous partner organizations around the world, bird rescue techniques have advanced greatly in the past 50 years. Proactive capture, the use of blood work and other diagnostics tools, and specialized cages and pools enable us to release rehabilitated birds in a much healthier state than ever before.

1 Wolfaardt A, 2009. The Conservation Value of Cleaning Oiled African Penguins: A study of the impact of oil pollution on the African Penguin, and the conservation value of de-oiling contaminated birds. Lambert Academic Publishing, 317 pp.

2 Newman, S.H., R.T. Golightly, E.N. Craig, H.R. Carter, and C. Kreuder. 2004.  The Effects of petroleum exposure and rehabilitation on post-release survival, behavior, and blood health indices: A Common Murre case study following the Styvesant petroleum spill. Oiled Wildlife Care Network, University of California, Davis. Pp. 1-46