On the evening of January 16, 2015, birds (primarily the diving duck species) began to flood into the International Bird Rescue (IBR) facility located in San Francisco coated with a mysterious, gray, sticky, rubber – cement-like substance matting their feathers. IBR specializes in birds who have suffered through oil spills and although this mystery goo was not oil, it was having the same effect on the birds.
A bird's feathers are exquisitely designed to form a latticework, in essence, which prevents water from penetrating through to their bodies. When a bird preens, they are aligning their feather barbs and barbules to maintain their waterproofing. When this alignment is compromised, as with an oiled bird, the animal gets wet and cold very quickly, which leads to death.
Volunteers worked around the clock scouring the shoreline for victims of this substance. The longer a bird remains substance-coated in the wild, the less likely it will survive.
State officials never were able to determine exactly what the substance was or where it came from. Because it was not a petroleum product involved, the state response network was never activated, nor was a responsible party (as in an oil spill) required to assume the cost of caring for these animals. IBR had never seen anything like this before and reached out to the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF) for a grant. ISF was happy to help IBR with a full grant to help with the astronomical expense of saving these precious creatures.
To remove the substance, IBR modified their oil spill wash protocols to include baking soda and vinegar to help loosen the substance before washing them with DAWN soap. IBR's team was able to wash approximately fifty to sixty birds each day during the emergency. Birds must be kept warm, hydrated, tube fed and provided the supportive and medical care necessary prior to and after the wash process until they are deemed stable, their blood values are normal and they are releasable back to the wild.
It was determined approximately four hundred and ninety three birds were affected by the "Mystery Goo" spill in the San Francisco Bay area. The final analysis on what the substance was came weeks after the response began. It was determined to be “a non-petroleum oil or fat based substance.” In all, three hundred and twenty three birds were brought to International Bird Rescue during this event. One hundred and seventy deceased were collected in the field by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. More than one hundred and fifty four birds were released back to the wild, with a few (approximately nineteen) remaining in care for treatment of pressure sores on their hocks or toes which occurred from being stranded on hard land before capture. Situations like this can often take months of care and healing. Some of the birds admitted for care were already too cold and weak from their ordeal to survive.
Looking back, Laura with IBR wrote ISF, “There really is no limit to what we can do, particularly when pressed into service in an emergency situation. There are so many caring people that are willing to go the extra mile when animals' lives are at risk; in a crisis like this, the outpouring of support, heart and ingenuity is profound. If we can take the same energy and will and apply it to the problems we face in our communities and the world each day we could do so much more to conserve and protect our precious natural resources and to prevent situations like this from happening in the first place.”
As a result of this emergency event, Senators from San Francisco introduced a new bill to allow the Office of Spill Prevention and Response to borrow funds from the Oil Spill Response Trust Fund for the purpose of wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, in the event of a non-petroleum based substance spill such as this.