On Jan. 18, 1971, two Standard Oil Company tankers collided in the San Francisco Bay. The result was an oil spill that covered 50 miles of coastline and about 7,000 birds. To contain the oil slick and rescue the birds, a surge of “men in blue overalls and young people, their long hair flowing in the wind,” volunteered to help, according to a report in the San Francisco Examiner.
“I think it’s going to pollute the whole world,” 7-year-old Jonathan Alba is quoted as saying as he “covered his face with his little hands.”
The tragic event sparked the birth of International Bird Rescue, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last weekend with a virtual Groovy Gathering. Over the past half-century, the organization has helped rescue and rehabilitate 125,000 birds over six continents. Those efforts include responding to 230 oil spills, helping wildlife contaminated by the San Francisco Bay “Mystery Goo” in 2015, repairing slashed pouches of brown pelicans, and saving nesting herons and egrets after a massive tree crashed to the sidewalk in downtown Oakland.
But the research and practices developed by Bird Rescue benefit wildlife beyond these headline-grabbing events. Fifty years ago, people didn’t know how to rehabilitate oil-covered birds, and only about 300 were eventually released following the 1971 spill. Today, thanks to the dedicated research and work of its staff members and volunteers, Bird Rescue can respond to a variety of challenges and help us all better protect wildlife.
Joanna Chin, a local volunteer of over eight years, remembers a woman bringing an injured western gull into San Francisco Bay-Delta wildlife center in Fairfield. The bird was found on the hood of a car, wrapped in a Taco Bell wrapper. Apparently, someone had hit the gull and hoped it would disappear. After it was given some anti-inflammatories, food and rest, the gull was healthy enough for release after only six days.
Bird Rescue has also helped one particular brown pelican four separate times with various ailments, including sea lion bites and head injuries. New research has revealed that pelicans can’t metabolize anti-inflammatories, so the care this injury-prone bird gets is custom to the species. Without this research, well-intentioned staff and volunteers could unintentionally hurt the pelican and impact the population.
“One individual really does matter,” Chin told me. “Seabirds are unusual in the animal world because they are fairly long-lived and have slow reproductive rates. When you save an individual and they return to the breeding population, it makes a huge difference overall.”
The massive oil spills that sparked the birth of International Bird Rescue will hopefully become tragedies of the past as climate change forces the world to move away from fossil fuels. But Chin’s experiences showcase the need for continued care and research. So long as we drive and let litter blow down our streets, birds and other animals will likely suffer. San Franciscans should avoid cars by biking, walking and scooting, when possible, and make sure garbage is put in the trash.
San Franciscans should also bring awareness to our interactions with wildlife and nature. Recently, a Brown pelican at Crissy Field delighted onlookers by holding still for selfies. What people failed to realize was that it had tar on its chest and was becoming weaker. When the pelican was finally brought to Bird Rescue, it was too weak to survive. Knowing how to spot an animal in distress and alerting rescuers is critical to protecting it.
“I think Bird Rescue came to be because there was a problem that didn’t have a solution,” JD Bergeron, the organization’s executive director, told me. “There’s no end in challenges that birds are facing, and we will continue to bring the best research, share resources broadly and be prepared to move on to the next unsolved problem.”
And there are plenty of unsolved problems facing the planet, including our continued dependence on climate-change causing fossil fuels, plastic pollution and extreme drops in biodiversity. It would be best to kick the habits causing such destruction. But until then, we’ll need all the “men in blue overalls and long-haired hippies” ready to help the planet for the next generation
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.