Day as a bird

Our writer visits a nearby rescue hospital and a new compassion takes flight

I listen as staff and volunteers at the International Bird Rescue in the Sacramento Valley are updated on the status of each patient in the hospital—nearly 20 birds.

Next, the group forms into teams of two. They’re skilled and coordinated as they capture a bird, cover it with a towel to keep it calm and hold it close to the body before bringing it indoors for care.

Each bird is weighed, assessed and examined. The teams draw blood, take X-rays, perform physical therapy by slowly stretching injured wings, and administer medications. It is a swift, compassionate examination, performed with quiet voices while the bird remains under the towel, except for the portion of its body being looked at.

The rescue center, located in nearby Fairfield, rehabilitates aquatic birds that are oiled or otherwise injured—and not just birds from California, but around the world.

Alice Berkner founded the center in 1971 after witnessing the aftermath of the collision between two Chevron tankers, which spilled 800,000 gallons of oil in the San Francisco Bay in January 1971. Before the collision, there had never been awareness of the need for such an organization, explains Jay Holcomb, emeritus director at International Bird Rescue.

At age 19, Holcomb was but one of many people who responded to the thousands of oiled birds showing up on S.F. beaches. He recalls all the birds were in warehouses, and that there were a lot of loving and caring people who wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. They saved a mere 300 of the 7,000 oiled birds.

As a result, Berkner, a retired nurse, founded a center that responded to the needs of birds. Today, International Bird Rescue is the world’s leading organization in oiled-bird response, rehabilitation, research and education.

The center has led rescue efforts in more than 200 oil spills worldwide, including the Treasure oil spill in 2000 in Cape Town, South Africa, which oiled 21,000 African penguins. Its work resulted in 98 percent of these penguins being rehabilitated and released, an effort the South African government says helped save the species from extinction.

“It doesn’t feel good to go to an oil spill. We see a lot of death and suffering,” Holcomb says. “We feel a sense of responsibility. We develop skills so we can help. …

“We have something to offer to the world and the environment.”

My mind returns to the birds at the hospital, and I feel the same sense of responsibility, particularly for those recuperating from human impact. Two brown pelicans recover from serious fishhook injuries, while a juvenile tangled in fishing line is now unable to fly. A Canada goose has a long recovery ahead from a pellet that shattered her leg bone. An American coot mends from being stuck to duct tape. And a black-crowned night heron rehabilitates after it is found hanging, tangled in fishing line.

It’s disturbing, the profound impact one’s actions can have on animal life. And I am struck by an observation Holcomb made during his appearance in the HBO documentary Saving Pelican 895:

“A population is made up of individuals. And when you stop caring about the individual, you stop caring about the population.”