Home & Garden Columns

Wild Neighbors: Thanksgiving with the Grebes and Scoters

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday November 27, 2007

Chopped fish and mealworms: not your classic Thanksgiving menu. But that’s what the eared and horned grebes at the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRCC) were getting. The larger birds—surf scoters, greater scaup, western grebes, common murres—were fed whole fish. The coots, according to a whiteboard notation, got a side of bloodworms “if we have any bloodworms.” 

I had volunteered for holiday duty (along with some 40 other people, as it turns out; the staff was hard put to find work for all of us) and had been assigned the fish-chopping detail, retrieving thawing small fish from a tub and scissoring them into diagonal chunks. I took them to be anchovies at first, but someone told me they were smelt. Not the endangered delta smelt, which is supposed to smell of cucumbers; these guys smelled unequivocally fishy. 

The IBRRC, an institution that deserves to be better known, is in Cordelia, near the 80/680 junction and the northern fringe of Suisun Marsh. Founded in Berkeley after the 1971 Oregon Standard oil spill and housed for years at Aquatic Park, it moved up here 30 years later. What the IBRCC does is the gold standard of oiled-bird care. Veterinarians and other emergency responders are here from as far away as Chile and Germany to watch the staff deal with the aftermath of the Cosco Busan spill, and to lend a hand themselves. 

Two weeks after the container ship hit the Bay Bridge, operations were winding down here. New birds were still being brought in, but only a trickle in comparison with the original flood. I found a current tally on the whiteboard in the break room: as of 10 p.m. on Nov. 21, 1,053 birds had arrived alive. Of those, 745 had been washed with Dawn detergent, and 133 had been released at Pillar Point and in Tomales Bay. Another 80 to 100 were undergoing blood testing and a veterinary check as candidates for release. A further 1,544 had been picked up dead, and were filling up the IBRCC’s freezers. 

Most of the birds awaiting evaluation and release were surf scoters, black-and-white orange-billed drakes and dark-brown ducks. There are thousands of them on San Francisco Bay this time of year; over 75 percent of the whole North American population winters locally. They’ve been hammered by contaminants in the Bay and logging and climate change on their boreal forest nesting grounds. They didn’t need to encounter 58,000 gallons of bunker oil. 

The scoters—and scaup, grebes, murres, common loons, bufflehead, and ruddy ducks—were housed in converted backyard pools, covered with netting to keep the spill victims in and opportunistic egrets and other fish-eaters out. Each pool bore a “No Diving” warning, but the birds were ignoring it. Diving, though, is what got them in trouble in the first place. All these species forage by diving for fish or mollusks from the water’s surface. Birds that make their living in other ways were less affected. 

But the spill cast a broad net. Nearly 40 species have been brought to the IBRCC, dead or alive: five species of grebes, three of loons, eight of ducks, five of gulls. There were a couple of shorebirds (black turnstone, lesser yellowlegs), a few pelagic seabirds (northern fulmar, rhinoceros auklet), even sparrows and starlings. And three raccoons, all DOA, presumably drowned while scavenging oiled bird carcasses. 

Chopping the smelt, which can become a fairly absorbing task, I was surrounded by controlled chaos. A volunteer named Sandra directed the movement of birds from pool to pen to examining station using three whiteboards and colored cardboard tags. (The next time this happens, and it will, the IBRCC may use microchips to track the traffic.) Plywood pens were being moved and sluiced down with pressure hoses. Yet another media crew, this one from a Sacramento TV station, arrived midmorning and had to be escorted around. 

Between food prep and towel folding, I got to watch a western grebe’s pre-evaluation. It was swaddled in a towel and not happy to be on the examining table. The vet took a blood sample and examined its yellow-green legs, which appeared swollen: too much time out of the water before it was rescued. It would have to stay in its pool a bit longer. Others with the right blood values and weight would get to go out. 

And I got to meet UC Davis oil spill response veterinarian Greg Massey, who, with Oiled Wildlife Care Network director Michael Ziccardi, will be trying to learn more about treating oiled birds so as to be better prepared for that inevitable next time. They’ll be looking at infrared imaging to detect which birds are losing body weight, better sanitation at the rescue center, blood analyses as more effective predictors of survival. 

If there’s a bright spot to the whole sorry Cosco Busan saga—the bungling, the flailing response, the neglect of whole stretches of badly oiled shoreline, don’t get me started—it’s what the folks at IBRCC, and its affiliated rescue centers like WildCare, are doing. There are still some heroes around. 


Photograph by Ron Sullivan. 

A scaup drake revels in his restored waterproofing and apparent health, in a pool at the International Bird Rescue Research Center’s Cordelia facility.