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February 1, 2021 – This month marks the 50th anniversary of the devastating oil spill that fouled San Francisco Bay, killing thousands of seabirds. In its wake, the spill created a wildlife emergency like no other, and led to the humble formation of International Bird Rescue in Berkeley, CA.
The January 1971 spill affected at least 7,000 birds. Nearly 4,300 oiled birds were collected by a rag tag group of dedicated volunteers. The gooey patients were pelicans, grebes, scoters, and cormorants. They all ended up in makeshift area wildlife rehabilitation centers staffed by volunteers from all walks of life.
Alice Berkner, Founder of Bird Rescue, remembers: “There were about 16 different treatment centers scattered around the Bay Area. A friend of mine, who happened to be a veterinarian, asked me if I wanted to go to the hastily established Richmond Bird Center and help out.”
Along the beaches young school kids joined Standard Oil workers and adult volunteers from all walks of life. One newscaster noted that “hippies and longhairs” were some of the most involved helpers cleaning beaches with straw to soak up the oil.
Local author of ‘When Elephants Weep’ and a current Bird Rescue volunteer, Susan McCarthy of San Francisco, remembers the oiled birds like it was yesterday. She was 15 years old and volunteered to help care for affected seabirds at the San Francisco Zoo.
“At the zoo, they sent me to the Lion House. I had been in the Lion House, but hadn’t known it had a cavernous basement,” said McCarthy. “There were boxes of birds on the floor, tubs of water on tables, and so many harried people. One volunteer compared scenes at a bird cleaning center to a Crimean War field hospital.”
From humble beginnings, International Bird Rescue was officially hatched in April of 1971 as “International Bird Rescue Research Center” in the “little red house” at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park. The organization forged an impressive history over the next half century. Its team has worked on some of the largest environmental crises, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, in 2000 helping lead a team saving 20,000 oiled African Penguins, and assisting the wildlife response at the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil platform blowout.
Along the way, as they learned, they shared. Scientific papers were published to expand the knowledge of proper treatment of oiled wildlife. Bird Rescue’s intern program helped train wildlife rehabilitators from all over the world.
To celebrate a half century of rescuing wildlife, Bird Rescue will hold a 1970s themed “Groovy Gathering” online event on May 17, 2021. The public is invited: www.birdrescue.org/50th/
“From an environmental tragedy 50 years ago, Bird Rescue was born to deliver on the promise of mitigating the human impact on seabirds and other aquatic species, through response, rehabilitation, and research,” says Executive Director JD Bergeron. “Our 50 th year promises to bring continued excellence in response and rehabilitation, as well as renewed focus on research, education, and outreach, especially to children, the next generation of wildlife stewards.”
Today, Bird Rescue runs two full-time bird rehabilitation centers located in the San Francisco Bay-Delta and Los Angeles areas, as well as an as-needed oiled wildlife response facility in Anchorage, Alaska. It is a founding partner in the State of California’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), and a founding member of the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS), a consortium of leading experts trying to solve the challenges of oiled wildlife.
On an early foggy morning on January 18, 1971, two Standard Oil tankers, the Arizona Standard and the Oregon Standard, collided in San Francisco Bay near the Golden Gate Bridge. The collision resulted in 800,000 gallons of caustic, sticky crude staining the bay and surrounding beaches.
Only about 300 birds were successfully rehabilitated and released – in part given the lack of established oiled bird rehabilitation practices at the time. Jay Holcomb, Bird Rescue’s long-time director—who passed away in 2014—told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012, “No one knew what to do. It was as horrible as you can imagine…It was then that we realized there needs to be an organized attempt for their care.”
About International Bird Rescue: In 1971, after 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the bay, concerned individuals led by a registered nurse named Alice Berkner jumped into action, bringing International Bird Rescue to life. We have always had to pave a road where there is none. Staff and volunteers work with tenacity alongside clients, partners, and the public to find solutions.
Today, we research best practices at our crisis response hospitals in California and Alaska and share them worldwide. Our mission is to inspire people to act toward balance with the natural world by rescuing waterbirds in crisis. We dream of a world in which every person, every day, takes action to protect the natural home of wildlife and ourselves.
Learn more at https://www.birdrescue.org/