State Labs: Mystery Goo Identified as Polymerized Oil, Similar to Vegetable Oil

Bufflehead coated with mystery goo during intake exam in January 2015.
Bufflehead coated with mystery goo during intake exam in January 2015.

In January, a “mystery goo” coated more than 500 seabirds along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. The goo has now been further identified by state labs as a “polymerized oil, most similar to vegetable oil.”

While in an oil spill, a responsible party steps forward to pay for the costs of cleanup, there was – and still is – no identified responsible party for the Mystery Goo. However, International Bird Rescue (“Bird Rescue”) took the lead after 323 live birds with the sticky substance were captured and transported to our San Francisco Bay Center. Bird Rescue was able to clean and rehabilitate 165 birds and release them back into the wild. An additional 170 birds were found dead. An unknown number of other birds were assumed killed because of predation or other factors.

State labs led by scientists at California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, and the California Department of Public Health in an effort to identify the material.

According to the report issued on September 11, 2015:

“The ‘goo’ was composed of a mixture of oils that contained polymers made up of fatty acids and triglycerides, and was most likely plant-derived. Petroleum products or animal fats were not detected through various chemical analyses. The presence of polymers (very large molecules made up of repeating smaller units), helps explain the gummy to hard nature of this substance.”

“This may be as close as we get,” said said Daniel Orr, environmental scientist with the California Fish and Wildlife Service. “I wish we had more to go on, but without a ‘pure’ sample or new investigative lead we may be at a standstill.”

The state and federal labs issued a preliminary report back on February 12 concluding that the substance included a mixture of non-petroleum-based fats or oils. See earlier blog post

The sticky goo resembled rubber cement and covered and matted the feathers of seabirds, limited their ability to stay warm, take flight, float and forage for food. No goo was found to be on the beach or in the water, which deepened the mystery.

Horned Grebe aka "Gummy Bear" came with super gunked feathers, 3 weeks later it was released clean.
One goo bird, a Horned Grebe aka “Gummy Bear,” came to Bird Rescue with super gunky feathers (left). After 3 weeks in care it was cleaned and healthy and was released back to the wild. (Photos by Cheryl Reynolds/International Bird Rescue)

Each of the birds was medically stabilized and then cleaned using a combination of baking soda and vinegar, followed by washing with Dawn detergent, and rinse to repair waterproofing.

Surf Scoters comprised 70% of birds brought in for care.
Surf Scoters comprised 70% of birds brought in for care.

The birds treated included: Surf Scoters, Horned Grebes, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, and Scaups. More than 70% the bird affected were Surf Scoters.

The birds were rescued beginning on January 16, 2015, along the East Bay shoreline from Alameda south to Hayward. All of the live birds came in to Bird Rescue’s San Francisco Bay Center in Fairfield, CA. The last impacted bird came in on January 22.

Our friends at Wildlife Emergency Services (WES) helped lead the capture efforts in the field, alongside Bird Rescue staff.

Many of the birds arrived with pressure sores to their hocks or toes from being stranded on hard land, and took two or three months to treat. Several dozen birds had surgeries for keel injuries but most of these healed quickly. The last bird in care, a male Surf Scoter, was released back to the wild on April 15th – nearly three months following the incident.

With no responsible party to help with the cost of bird care, International Bird Rescue’s relied on public and foundation support to pay the $150,000 bill. This was a superb example of public-private partnership which Bird Rescue hopes to replicate for future unforeseeable events to ensure high quality care and sufficient supplies are on hand. You can support our Emergency Response capacity by donating here.

The goo incident still remains under investigation. If you have any information on the incident, contact California’s CalTIP line at 1-888-334-2258 or download the free CalTIP smartphone App. All reports are confidential.

Hundreds of Surf Scoters were among the 323 seabirds brought into care during the "Mystery Goo" event.
Hundreds of Surf Scoters were among the 323 seabirds brought into care during the “Mystery Goo” event.