Bird baths save wildlife after oil spills

Bird baths save wildlife after oil spills

Hannah Joyce


Originally published by Green Horizons

It is difficult for humans to develop relationships with birds. We tend to want to touch, pet, kiss, hug, remake them in our own image, and otherwise grow bonds with the animals we have domesticated. But birds are different — they soar high above us, mostly out of reach, and jet off when we get too close. 

Associate Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Environment Studies programsal johnston has found a way to integrate himself into the livelihood of birds and to observe their beautiful stature and independent personalities. He helps rescue them at the International Bird Rescue in San Pedro.

After the 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill, Alice Berkner attempted to save more than 7,000 birds that were harmed by the spill. Her motivation to rescue the injured birds inspired the birth of the International Bird Rescue. This non-profit rehabilitation center for wounded and harmed birds is a sanctuary for all aquatic birds along the California coast. 

The International Bird Rescue has two full-time wildlife centers: one in San Francisco, where it all started, and one in San Pedro. San Pedro responds to birds south of Santa Barbara and north of Orange County, while the San Francisco center responds to birds north of Santa Barbara.

The rescue centers do not go out looking for the birds. There are enough birds constantly being delivered to them by animal control or other individuals and agencies. 

Unless there is an “event,” as Professor johnston calls it, such as an oil spill, the bird rescuers do not leave the premises searching for oiled or injured birds. Instead, it acts like an emergency room for seagulls that have gotten caught in a fire behind a restaurant, pelicans caught in fishing lines, or baby gulls drenched in crude oil from a spill. The San Pedro rescue center will do everything in its power to rehabilitate the birds and send them back into its habitat.

He has been volunteering at the San Pedro center every Saturday since July 2016. A normal Saturday for himat the San Pedro rescue center is spent conducting intake exams on new birds, drawing blood, spinning blood, tube-feeding birds, giving injections and, occasionally, washing oiled birds. 

As heartwarming as the Dawn dish detergent commercials are, Professor johnston wishes rinsing off a bird could be that simple. A normal wash for a bird that has oil damage is more physically strenuous.

Professor johnston has to worry about maneuvering his fingers so they don’t get bitten off, protecting his eyes so they don’t get plucked out, and trying to control an animal that has never been restricted before.

Crude oil — a form of petroleum — that gets extracted from drilling and natural oil that seeps through the earth’s surface, and gasoline from cars are examples of the most common oils that coat aquatic birds.

When oil covers a bird, their fishing habits are disrupted because their feathers are no longer water resistant. This causes their skin to be exposed to the cold water, resulting in drastic body temperature changes. A bird’s body temperature is extremely important for its survival. Because oil weighs down the birds body, they lose their buoyancy, which causes them to beach themselves. In addition, birds have a natural instinct to clean their feathers,  if coated with oil, could kill them because they are consuming the oil. This consumption could result in possible organ failure for a bird.

Johnston says he gets more than he gives from doing his part to protect wildlife. Every Saturday he drives to San Pedro knowing that the birds he tries to take care of have “no care or recognition” of him. 

He does not lock eyes with the birds, searching for signs of their appreciation for his work. Instead, johnston feels their desire to be free, which he says is a beautiful sight to see. 

The relationship between the civilized and the wild is a weekly reminder for johnston that the world is greater than routines, stress, and weekly conflict.

“It is very romantic encounter with the complete other, in this really profound poetic way,” said johnston. “They are so close to you, and they are so wild.”