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Friends of the feathered

By Jennifer Dix Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday September 02, 2000

If there’s one thing Coleen Doucette has seen enough of, it’s wild birds that have swallowed fishhooks or fish line.  

The San Francisco Bay is right on the Pacific Flyway, a major stopover for migrating waterfowl. Through this corridor pass thousands of ducks, grebes, gulls, geese, egrets, and much more.  

Because it’s a popular habitat for humans, too, conflicts inevitably arise.  

“We have seven pelicans brought in this week who swallowed fish line,” says Doucette, the rehabilitation manager at the International Bird Rescue and Research Center, located at Aquatic Park. “If people would just pick up their fish lines … we’d probably go out of business!”  

Actually, the nonprofit IBRRC does much more than tend to Bay Area water birds. It was founded in 1971 in response to a horrific oil spill, when two tankers collided under the Golden Gate Bridge, pouring 800,000 gallons of oil onto the waters in a slick that extended 50 miles along the coastline. There are hundreds of bird rescue centers in the U.S. today, but the Berkeley-based IBRRC is one of only two such organizations (the other is in Delaware) with an international oil spill response team. IBRRC director Jay Holcomb has spent the past two months in South Africa heading an international project to rescue penguins from a huge oil spill off Capetown. 

The Berkeley rehabilitation program was actually a spin-off of the IBRRC’s larger international mission. But it’s become a sizeable program – the center may see up to 80 birds a week during the summer, and Doucette estimates that 1,000 sick or injured birds come through in a year. 

This fall, IBRRC is moving to new quarters. The state has provided funds to build two new bird rescue facilities, one in Los Angeles, the other in Cordelia. Both will have the capacity to hold up to 1,000 birds at a time in case of a major environmental disaster. While the main office will relocate to Cordelia, staff hope they can find enough volunteers to keep the Berkeley facility open and continuing its important work. 

Some bird rescue centers specialize in songbirds; IBRRC is the place for aquatic fowl. The staff is in touch with other rescue centers around the state, exchanging ideas and sometimes trading birds. Coleen is concerned today about an abandoned baby grebe, just a couple of weeks old, which arrived last week. She places a call to a facility in San Rafael. 

“Hi,” she says. “You don’t have any grebes, do you? No? Well, I’d like it, if you get any Westerns or Clarks, if you’d send them down here. We’ve got a baby and he needs to grow up with some of his own kind.” 

She goes out to check on the progress of the grebe chick. This is his first day in the cold-water pool, which he shares with a group of recuperating murres.  

“He’s waterproofing up well!” Doucette says, peering at the downy chick. 

When a bird first arrives at the Rescue Center, it has usually lost its waterproofing, either through trauma or contamination. Preening, or grooming their plumage so the feathers are aligned and watertight, is how waterfowl stay waterproof (not, as is commonly thought, by oiling the feathers). A sick or traumatized bird will not preen; the feathers become disheveled, and that leaves the creature vulnerable to penetration by the cold water. Soon, the bird can die of hypothermia. To prevent that, rehabilitators put the bird first in a warm water pool while it regains its equilibrium. 

The grebe, who has recently graduated to the cold-water pool, is a darling of the staff. This is a bird so ugly that he’s cute. He could star as the Ugly Duckling in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Two beady black eyes are set in a round head covered with spiky grey down. He churns the water furiously with little black legs and webbed feet that are set far back on a nearly tailless body, giving him the look of a mutating tadpole. He looks as soft as a kitten, and the temptation to pick him up is strong. 

But that’s not allowed. “They’ll imprint really easily,” Doucette explains. And the whole point is for the grebe to grow up thinking he’s a grebe, not a person. 

A bird’s stay at the IBRRC can range from a few days to a few months. Juvenile birds remain at the rescue facility until they reach maturity. Older birds are released as soon as they are strong enough to fly or swim again.  

Today, two gulls and two murres are ready for release. Doucette and Lois Yuen, a volunteer, load the birds into cardboard carriers and drive to Point Emery. It’s a beautiful day – the sun sparkles on the water and a light breeze lifts the spirits.  

The gulls are first to be released. With a great flapping of wings, they escape into the air and head toward San Francisco. They know where the food is. 

The murres are released into the water. Doucette and Yuen grin in satisfaction as they watch the birds bob out onto the waves, then orient themselves toward the Golden Gate Bridge. These are deep sea birds that will soon be heading north.  

“It always amazes me that they know exactly where to go,” Doucette comments.  

The idyllic moment is soon over. Back at the rescue center, there’s already another casualty. Animal control officer Leslie Tisdale is here with a large pelican.  

It’s tangled in fishline. 

Contact the center at 841-9086.