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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

UC Davis rescues birds from San Francisco oil spill

UC Davis staffers from the Wildlife Health Center are on the scene of the Dubai Star oil spill in the San Francisco Bay to capture and rehabilitate oiled birds.

Rising at 4:45 a.m., crew members have arrived at Crab Cove in Alameda by 6:30 a.m. since Oct. 30 to begin bird recovery. The team has recovered 48 live birds and continues to work around the clock, monitoring the birds’ recovery and preparing them to be released back into the wild.

The team is part of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, administered by the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine.

Feathers normally zip together like Velcro, trapping air and repelling water to make birds buoyant. Once oil has physically altered the feather structure, birds tend to stop leaving the water for food in an effort to retain heat, leading to hypothermia and starvation.

“We got most of the birds on the first day after the spill which was really lucky. You need to get them in as soon as possible after the spill due to the small window of opportunity,” said Greg Massey, Assistant Director of the OWCN. Swift bird rehabilitation is essential as even prolonged in-captivity care can be detrimental to their wellbeing.

After recovery, birds are warmed at the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center in Fairfield to make them comfortable enough to handle the stress of washing.

The Fairfield facility is the most advanced veterinary care center for oiled wildlife in the world and provides care for up to 1,000 birds. In addition to the Dubai Star spill, the center is also caring for several hundreds birds infected with an algae disease.

Although the OWCN team has worked every day since the spill, capturing the birds proves to be a difficult task.

“Part of the challenge is that sometimes [oiled birds] get into a sensitive habitat and just a physical presence can damage it,” Massey said. To capture birds without harming the environment, Massey and his team use several netting techniques.

For every bird recovered, oiled-bird experts estimate there are 10 to 100 birds that could not be saved, according to a UC Davis news release.

As of Nov. 8, roughly fifty pre-trained volunteers who work with the OWCN’s member organizations contributed 491 hours of service.

“When I got the call on Friday morning that there was an oil spill in San Francisco Bay, what a relief it was to know that OWCN had been activated and was available to respond quickly,” said environmental specialist Laird Henkel in an interview with the OWCN blog.

The OWCN, funded by the California Office of Spill Prevention Response, is managed by the UC Davis Wildlife Healthcare Center, and financed by interest on the $50 million California Oil Spill Response Trust Fund. Although the network has millions in funding, it is the duty of the responsible party, in this case the Dubai Star, to cover the bill for all of the response efforts.

“Cleaning up the environment can be done in a relatively short period of time,” said Massey. “But people don’t realize that we may be caring for animals for weeks after that clean up is finished.”

GABRIELLE GROW can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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