On October 22-23rd the Oiled Wildlife Care Network hosted its biennial conference, Oilapalooza! This two-day conference is hosted by OWCN for its Network of Member Organizations and consists of lectures, interactive activities, and hands-on workshops. This year we held the conference at our home base in Davis, CA. We had over 175 attendees (between our in-person and virtual opportunities) from greater than 35 of OWCN’s Member Organizations, as well as some affiliated agencies and colleagues.
We kicked off the conference with a warm welcome from our Director, Dr. Mike Ziccardi, as well as updates from California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (CDFW-OSPR), OWCN Field Operations and OWCN Care Operations. We also welcomed 3 new Member Organizations: National Marine Mammal Foundation, Gold Country Wildlife Rescue, and Wildlife Innovations and had multiple lectures from across the globe.
During the afternoon session, participants rotated among breakout groups and got to help solve a problem that developed in escape room fashion (an animal had gone missing, and we needed to find the thief and recover the missing animal!). Everyone had a great time, and we appreciate our friends at Escapely for facilitating an exciting activity. Following all the excitement our responders had the opportunity to join us for appetizers, drinks, and the traditional OWCN raffle. It was a fun filled day and we always appreciate the opportunity to connect with our amazing Network.
But wait, there’s more! During the second day of our two-day event Network members had the opportunity to choose from 8 different workshops including: Bats 101, Snake Safety, Wildlife Capture techniques, Biosecurity and many more!
Click here to view the entire Oilapalooza program.
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Have you missed getting notifications regarding new blogs? Well, we’ve moved the blog directly to the OWCN website. Once you’re on our homepage scroll down and click on the “latest on the OWCN Blog” widget. From there, you will be able to access our blogs. To find out when new blogs are posted on the website, we encourage our readers to follow us on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn).
Upcoming events for the OWCN Responders:
November 15th –Basic Responder Training from 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM: Open to all OWCN responders that have an active profile AND have completed the Core Webinar Series.
On Tuesday July 5th, our Leadership Team was in communication with Lisa Smith, Executive Director of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc., regarding the report of an oil spill that they were responding to potentially affecting a large number of Canada geese. And on Thursday morning, our Leadership Team said we had been approved to provide assistance. I flew out around noon and arrived a little after 1am.
My first day at Tri-State was mostly preparation, as the birds were in the process of being recovered from a location several hours away. This also allowed me some time to get a tour from Lisa of their incredible facility.
In the early evening the birds arrived by horse trailer, divided up into the separate stalls on board. One good thing about habituated wildlife is that they are easier to catch and manipulate into doing what you want. Also, being a flock species, if you can get one of them to do what you want, the others will usually follow (watch the video below to see what I mean)! Luckily, Callan Hahn of Wildlife Transportation Facilitators, was available and happily made the emergency trip to safely bring the birds to Tri-State for treatment and care.
The product was dielectric oil, which is used for transformer and other electrical device insulation. Fortunately, this product has a low toxicity. Its Safety Data Sheet (SDS) labels it as…”irritating to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. Oral toxicity is low…”
Our Intake & Processing began Friday evening when the birds arrived and continued through around noon on Sunday. On Saturday, three medical teams working all day admitted an astounding 96 birds! Because the product wasn’t very caustic, the effects that we saw were predominantly feather contamination, some eye irritation along with mild skin irritation and patchy feather loss where the birds may have been excessively preening. Still, there were a lot of birds needing to be cleaned!
Pens were set up in the Pre-Wash Care area dividing the birds up by about a dozen in each. Having so many birds coming in at the same time, they had to improvise their set-up and process but Mandy Fischer, their Oil Programs Director, impressively managed the situation and had everything moving smoothly along.
For the entire response, Tri-State cared for 201 Canada geese. The Tri-State Oiled Wildlife Response Team consists of only 4 full time staff members, which meant organizing dozens of additional paraprofessionals and skilled Tri-State volunteers, brought in to assist in the timely care of so many birds. It was a short response for me, but I was glad to help however I could and it was a great opportunity to meet and work with all the wonderful people at Tri-State including Dr. Erica Miller as well as their new Wildlife Veterinarian, Jill Wallace. I also had the pleasure to work with Marie Travers and January Bill, contracted through Focus Wildlife, who are also associated with one of our own Member Organizations, Bird Ally X! And Tracy Anderson, now a staff member at Focus Wildlife, who had also previously run the Save Our Shearwaters program back on Kaua’i!
Reliable, portable equipment is one of the pillars of oiled wildlife response. Veterans of the oiled wildlife field will tell you about their favorite, albeit devastatingly discontinued, rinse nozzle. They’ll show it to you, maybe even let you hold it, but ask to borrow it and their ice-cold glare will send shivers down your spine! We can be protective over our favorite tools. Sometimes our favorite piece of equipment is a high value item like an ancient centrifuge that, despite years of abuse, still gets the job done better than any new model. Sometimes that favored item is purely for convenience or comfort, like that pen. Ah, you know the one. Just the perfect ink flow, thickness, and it never smudges or skips. You’re in an exclusive relationship with this pen. Its home is in your pocket and losing it would mean a frantic search until—ah ha! You snatch it from your coworker’s grasp. They foolishly didn’t realize the pen was spoken for, but you educate them. And now you’re reunited with your inky beloved and… okay, let’s get back on track.
The point is, we find the supplies that work and we hang on tight! An oiled wildlife response facility is a fast-paced and often chaotic environment. Selecting the most efficient and dependable equipment ultimately saves us valuable time which translates to better outcomes for our wild patients. If having a favorite pen gets you through your shift smoother and with clearer handwriting—more power to you. But this blog is about a different sort of pen. An oil spill response classic. The tried and true. The soft-sided pen.
The soft-sided pen is an enclosure designed specifically for seabirds. It’s been through several iterations and many seabird focused organizations have put their own spin on it. Regardless of the individual customizations from various designers, the basic features of a soft-sided seabird pen are the same:
This material protects delicate wings from injury when a frightened bird flaps against them.
Seabirds are typically fish-eaters. That diet can be problematic for maintaining the waterproofing of their feathers. Fish oil and the birds’ own droppings can fall through the net-bottom, which beneficially limits the amount of contaminant in contact with the birds’ feathers. The net also helps distribute the birds’ bodyweight, lessening the detrimental effects of being housed on land vs. in the water during their recovery.
The enclosure needs to be transported to or easily stored at the primary care facility where the rehabilitation of oiled wildlife is taking place.
Nonporous materials can be disinfected for the biosecurity of our facility.
The OWCN has been working with the same soft-sided pen design for the last 15 years. It has performed well and we have used hundreds of them through the years. But is it a perfect design without need for improvement? No. While the current soft-sided pen design has met our needs, we have identified some areas for potential improvement.
The current frame material is PVC. PVC is heavy and the fittings often break during disassembly of the pen.
The current design is 25 pounds and rather bulky.
The current design gets broken down into 52 parts and takes about 30 minutes to assemble.
What are we looking for in a new design?
We’d like a new design that is lighter and will take less time to assemble. Easier said than done! Fortunately, UC Davis, the home of the OWCN, is a land of many opportunities. One such opportunity comes in the form of our relationship with the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Capstone Program. Teams of senior engineering students are paired with a local sponsor to produce a design that solves a complex engineering challenge. Since 2020, the OWCN has sponsored 8 of these senior capstone team projects. Thinking we had a good match for the program with our seabird enclosure dilemma, we submitted our project proposal and were matched with a student team earlier this year. Throughout the semester, I met with students Matthew Featherstone, Yuejun Fu, Miguel Gomez-Sanabria, Bryant Huynh, Mursal Wardak, and Marllon Zavala as they tested and problem-solved their way through the design process. The students’ work included detailed risk analyses, manufacturing drawings, assembly and fabrication instructions, a user’s manual, and best of all—a working prototype!
For anyone reading this who has had the pleasure of assembling the previous soft-sided pen design, you may want to take a seat before you watch the assembly of the new design below…
Thanks to the ingenuity of our industrious engineering team, the assembly time on the soft-sided pen has been reduced by approximately two-thirds! WOW!
Once the pen’s major parts have been manufactured, the pen is kept in a collapsed state—ready to be quickly expanded and set up within 10 minutes for use during a response. This is thanks in large part to its new collapsible aluminum frame with 3D printed joints. We asked our design team to source materials that could either be purchased in a local store, 3D printed, or harvested from the older soft-sided pen design. The team incorporated the net-bottom frame and marine fabric from the older design and used new, lightweight materials for the rest.
Overall, the new design is lighter, takes a third of the time to assemble, and has fewer parts to worry about. We maintained the general dimensions and ergonomic height of the enclosure from the older design.
Additional features of the new design include:
Removable legs to drop the enclosure to shorter height with a solid floor
Optional wheels for portability around the facility
Optional divider to separate the occupants or create a more confined space
What’s next for this design prototype?
Innovative projects like this are one of the most exciting parts of my job at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. We are always seeking new and better ways to achieve our mission of providing the best-achievable capture and care for oil-affected wildlife. In this case, our new prototype has a lot of real-world testing to go through to ensure that it meets our high standards for safety and animal care. I look forward to sharing updates on that process in 2023. In the meantime, if you find yourself in the Primary Care Facility at an OWCN spill response, keep an eye out for my new favorite pen. This one is too good not to share.
I’d like to extend a HUGE thank you to our team of engineering students: Matthew Featherstone, Yuejun Fu, Miguel Gomez-Sanabria, Bryant Huynh, Mursal Wardak, and Marllon Zavala. Best wishes to you on your post-graduation journeys!
Hey Everyone, I would like to announce our new Care Facilities Specialist, Danny Vickers, and give him our warmest welcome to the OWCN team!
Danny currently hails from Colusa County and joins the OWCN from right here at UC Davis, where he most recently served as a Principle Animal Technician at the Animal Science Beef Facilities, not only providing animal care but also maintaining facility functionality (including welding, plumbing, and carpentry), and functionality of large equipment (including trucks, tractors, ATVs, trailers, and forklifts). Danny has also previously worked in plumbing, as a necropsy technician, and as a Bridge Crewmember Sergeant for the 132nd MRBC Engineering Company of the California National Guard, where he operated and supervised the use of bridge trucks, light vehicles and MK II bridge erection boats.
Danny has a BS in Animal Sciences from UC Davis and due to his passion for wildlife, completed coursework in Wildlife/Range Management at Humboldt State University.
When he’s not boating, skiing, or scuba diving, Danny enjoys hanging out with his wife Sierra and their two hound dogs, Jameson and Ranger, on their ranch in Colusa County, where they also have a number of horses and barn cats that keep them busy in their free time.
As many of you are piecing together, Danny is the new “Tim”, and thus he has some big shoes to fill. But he is definitely up for the challenge! Danny joined the OWCN Management Team on June 21st and is already ankle-deep in HAZWOPER training and working with Wendy on equipment at the BoneYard! We are so excited to have him here and are looking forward to having him meet and work with the rest of our fantastic Network!
Yes! We really DO! We love having you as part of our Network, but we REALLY love it when we have enough people within our amazing Network trained and ready to respond to an oil spill! That, after all, is what we are all about, as our mission clearly states: “provide best achievable capture and care to oil-affected wildlife”. Being able to fulfill this mission means that we need to make sure we have enough people within our Network that can respond to a spill, at any given moment.
Even though we have roughly 1,600 folks in our database, it doesn’t mean that we have 1,600 people that are ready to respond in all the various roles that we need to fill. If you have taken the OWCN Core Webinars (a set of 3), there are a few roles you could fill as a volunteer. If you want the ability to have a wider selection of volunteer roles, however, you will need to take the next level up training, called the Basic Responder Training (or BRT for short). The BRT training will help provide you with a greater understanding of our operations and potential roles during response. Taking this training also has the added benefit of allowing you to sign up for volunteer shifts during a response, as it gives you pre-approval to sign up for any available shift.
If you are interested in the potential of filling a staff role, either in a facility or in the field, in addition to the Core Webinars and the BRT, you will also need to take the Oiled Wildlife Specialist (OWS) training. Depending on what role you are interested in potentially being hired on during a spill, there may be a few additional trainings. For example, if you would like to go out in the field to help with the capture of animals, you will also need a current 24-hr HAZWOPER training. During the recent Pipeline P00547 Incident, there were fewer responders trained to the OWS level, which made things a bit challenging, and meant that we could not rotate people as often as we would have liked. Well, you could help change this!
Today I want to let you know about some upcoming trainings – there is a virtual BRT training coming up on Friday, June 24 (from 9am-4pm). We still have spots available and would love to have you join us! To sign up you will need to do so through your OWCN Responder Profile.
If you need yet another reason for taking the BRT, the BRT is a pre-requisite for taking the Oiled Wildlife Specialist training (OWS), which is a 2-day training. The first day of this training is virtual, and is happening on August 3. The second day is an in-person training (remember those??) – we are holding one in northern CA (Cordelia, Aug. 18) and one is southern CA (San Pedro, Aug. 30) – you get to pick which one is most convenient for you.
Lastly, I wanted to spread the word that we are offering a new specialty for the OWS training this year: Hazing & Deterrence. If you have interest in learning more about how to scare, exclude, or deter unoiled wildlife from oil, this specialty is for you!
So please join us at one or both of these upcoming trainings! If you have any questions, feel free to shoot us an email (owcn@owcnblog). Can’t wait to meet you or see you at one of our trainings!
As most of you know, boats are an essential tool for many oil spills to reach and collect affected wildlife. OSPR and OWCN maintain a fleet of vessels that is dedicated to wildlife recovery during spills, and staff periodically attend trainings to review boating safety and skills and learn how to operate new equipment.
I recently had the opportunity to join some of my OWCN colleagues for two such trainings. The first was the Motorboat Operator Training Course (MOTC) refresher. The MOTC is a comprehensive 3-5-day course that covers safe boating operation, which should be taken by anyone who is regularly boating or may be a primary boat operator. A 1-day refresher class is required every 5 years to refresh knowledge and skills. During April I had the privilege of joining Kyra, Wendy, Jamie, and Jennie for an MOTC refresher through UC Davis in Bodega Bay. We reviewed things like field safety planning, vessel safety checks and inspections, knot tying skills, maintenance and record keeping, and did several practical exercises on the water. The course was tailored to the type of vessel operations we might use for wildlife recovery during a spill, and it was extra beneficial because I was working side by side with my OWCN colleagues, just as I would during a spill.
The second training was one I’ve been waiting for since I started in my current role with OSPR in 2011. The Airboat Operations Course hasn’t been offered through CDFW since 2010, so I was ecstatic to finally be able to take it. I had never operated an airboat before, so I had a lot to learn. The course covered pre-operation checks, maneuvering, loading/unloading, and, of course, safety. You might think that if you’ve driven one boat you can drive any boat, but the operation of an airboat is much different than the small skiffs I traditionally operate. One of the primary considerations is being aware of your wake and making sure it doesn’t come into the boat when you stop or turn. I was also surprised to learn that airboats maneuver much more smoothly on mud or wet vegetation than on water. This training was just the beginning of my journey of becoming an experienced airboat operator, and it was great to share it with Wendy and Jennie. I was also lucky to have Tim and Randy (retired, formerly with OSPR) as two of the 8 wonderful instructors. Although I hope we never have a situation requiring use of airboats for an oil spill, I am grateful to be more familiar with their use and operation should we need them to access shallow or muddy wetland or marsh habitat. Until then, I’m looking forward to many more trainings with my OWCN colleagues.
Colleen is an Environmental Scientist for CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz. Her primary job duties include oil spill contingency planning for sea otters and other marine wildlife, maintaining response equipment and working as part of the Wildlife Recovery team during spills.
Our final region spotlight is the “Central” region, which is the middle of our state from the western Sierra Nevada foothills to the coastal counties of Monterey and San Luis Obispo. Much of this region consists of the San Joaquin Valley which has some interesting facts of its own. Together with the Sacramento Valley, it forms the Central Valley which according to the US Geological Survey, contains 17% of the nation’s irrigated land and produces 25% of our entire nation’s food. This is vital for our food supply but perhaps not for the species that live or had once lived there.
Recall that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) divides the state into 7 functional regions:
Region 1: Northern
Region 2: North Central
Region 3: Bay Delta
Region 4: Central
Region 5: South Coast
Region 6: Inland Deserts
Region 7: Marine
Our OWCN Member Organizations in this region are:
Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center (Hughson, Stanislaus County)
Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, Monterey County)
SPCA for Monterey County (Salinas, Monterey County)
Pacific Wildlife Care (Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo County)
California Living Museum (Bakersfield, Kern County)
This region has a very diverse range of habitats from pine forests to naturally dry and artificially irrigated valleys, to coastal areas. As such, it is home to a wide variety of species, many of which are endemic and of conservation concern. Featured below are some of these plus another that is one of my favorites.
There are many salamander species in this region, but two of them are State Threatened and endemic to Kern County. These salamanders belong to the Plethodontid family or the “Lungless salamanders”. They are land dwellers but do not have lungs to breathe, rather they respire through their skin and the linings of their mouth. Because of this, they need a moist environment to keep from drying out. Within this family, are the genus of “Slender salamanders” which have 4-digit hind limbs as a feature which distinguishes them from other salamanders.
The State Threatened Tehachapi slender salamander is only found in the drainage area of Caliente Creek to Ft Tejon in the Tehachapi Mountains. It can have different color variations and look similar to the Black-bellied salamander that is also found in this area but the Tehachapi slender salamander is short and stocky.
The State Threatened Kern Canyon slender salamander can look very similar to the Tehachapi slender salamander but has a different home range in northern Kern County in the Kern River Canyon. When threatened, both these salamanders use defense tactics such as coiling and camouflage, coiling and springing/bouncing around, as well as dropping their tail to distract the predator while they flee.
This region is also home to Kangaroo rats of conservation importance. Although these rats look nothing like the non-native Black rat or Norway rat, other species of native mice and rats may look similar to non-native species. Although not always the case, many species of our native mice and rats often have the characteristics of a more furred, bi-colored tail, white bellies and feet. While sometimes they may not have these features, especially young ones, if they do have them, they are likely native.
The Morro Bay kangaroo rat is only found in south Morro Bay. This State and Federally Endangered species inhabits fine sands among coastal scrub vegetation in relatively open areas. The Fresno kangaroo rat is also State and Federally Endangered and mostly found in southwest San Joaquin Valley. The Tipton kangaroo rat is the third State and Federally Endangered rat that is only found in Kern and Tulare Counties. While these three important rats have the typical furred, bi-colored tails, white bellies, and white feet, they can be difficult to visually differentiate from other native kangaroo rats other than being smaller.
Once down to 22 remaining in the wild, the endangered California Condor has rebounded to an estimated 334 according to the National Park Service. They can be found in other neighboring states and Mexico, but in California they mostly inhabit the mountain ranges of the southwest San Joaquin Valley. A female will lay a maximum of a single egg each breeding season. If she does so, it then takes over a year for that baby to fledge and over 6 years to reach breeding age. Mid-morning as the fog lifts along the cliff lookouts of Big Sur you may be lucky to see one!
The Blunt-nosed leopard lizard is yet another State and Federally Endangered endemic species of this region. This species looks similar to the Long-nosed leopard lizard except for its blunt snout. Once found throughout almost all of the San Joaquin Valley, the extensive conversion of the area to agricultural land has diminished their habitat to small and sparse populations.
The last animals featured for this region aren’t endangered or threatened but are listed as a Species of Special Concern and are very interesting to me. These are the California legless lizards. Because they have no legs, they look and move like very small snakes, but a glance at their head and you can tell they are a lizard. If you look even closer you will see that like other lizards, they have eyelids and external ears!
Some legless lizard species can be quite long, however the ones native to California don’t get much longer than 6 inches. Different species are found from the Central region south into Region 5, however 2 species and 1 subspecies are only found in Region 4. In Kern County there is the Temblor legless lizard and the Bakersfield legless lizard. The melanistic subspecies of the Northern California legless lizard (Black legless lizard) is an inhabitant of the Monterey Bay and Peninsula.
It has been an enjoyable journey covering the different regions. They each have their own unique features and many fascinating animals that live there. I hope to learn even more about these areas and someday see them in person!
I may not have known it at the time, but it turns out I was preparing to join the Oiled Wildlife Care Network many years ago. As a bright eyed, zealous marine biology major from UCLA, I jumped at early volunteer and internship opportunities to get my feet wet in an aspirational wildlife career. While I had great interest in all aspects of marine science and wildlife conservation, I was bitten by the charismatic megafauna bug and found myself drawn to the captivating world of marine mammals. This led me to an internship with the California Wildlife Center (CWC), helping them rescue stranded marine mammals from the Malibu coast, followed by yet another internship with the Aquarium of the Pacific (AOP) marine mammalogy department to work directly with their captive California sea lions, Pacific harbor seals and Southern sea otters (coincidentally, both CWC and AOP are current OWCN Member Organizations!)
Following my internships and a few great years at Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, I found myself working at another OWCN Member Organization, this time The Marine Mammal Center. Starting in the stranding department, I focused on coordinating the rescue efforts of stranded marine mammals (a much larger rescue range than the Malibu coast!). Surprisingly, my love for hands on work with marine mammals began to shift, as I found myself drawn to organization wide personnel coordination and operational logistics which led to me being hired as their first full time Volunteer Resources Manager. I spent the next few years immersed in an amazing community of over 1,200 dedicated volunteers and staff.
So when seven years ago an opportunity for a Wildlife Response Specialist popped up at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis, I couldn’t resist. I was blessed to join an industry leader in oiled wildlife spill response including a professional management team of amazing individuals paired with a Network of passionate, devoted and highly skilled Member Organizations. (Fun Fact: just after my interview, I was mobilized to the Refugio incident as a Volunteer Coordinator, while still at TMMC. I like to call it my slightly stressful working interview).
During my time at OWCN, my personal growth has exceeded my own expectations simply due to osmosis. I am surrounded by a Network filled with intelligent, driven, empathetic wildlife advocates who whole-heartedly believe our small actions today can drive monumental change. I am now disaster proficient in ICS lingo, understand the true value of collaboration (special shout out to our CDFW OSPR colleagues!), know more about PPE than I ever thought possible, and have assisted in the rescue of oiled CA native wildlife ranging in size from a tree frog to a brown pelican to a sea lion.
But through it all, I am often reminded that while the wildlife may have sparked my initial passion for this work, it is absolutely the people who have made it so special and unforgettable. I wish to thank each and every one of you for your positive influence, selfless contributions, and patient sharing of knowledge and expertise. The Oiled Wildlife Care Network, in my opinion, is the gold standard of community, coordination and cooperation.
If you made it this far (and endured this sappy blog), I hope I’ve adequately shared just a shred of my gratitude toward this amazing Network. I am sharing these thoughts today as I have accepted a new position as the Associate Director of Logistics with the California Veterinary Emergency Team (CVET) with the One Health Institute at UC Davis (starting later this month). I won’t be going too far physically, as OWCN also resides within the One Health Institute, but will be focused on this new emergency response program and thus no longer involved in daily OWCN operations.
I will miss my regular interactions with you all, but look forward to admiring OWCN’s inevitable advancement forward as you all continue doing your amazing work. Thank you for allowing me to be a small part of this Network.
For this week’s blog I decided to delve into the world of grebes, a species that I grew to love (and lose sleep over) during the Pipeline P00547 Response. Grebes were the most abundant, most vocal and most problematic patients, however they were also some of the most fun.
Although the most common species we worked with during the Pipeline P00547 Response were Western grebes, there are actually 22 different species within the genus Podiceps. They can range in size from 120 grams (Least grebe) to 1.7 kilograms (Great grebe), no pun(s) intended. Grebes are migratory and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. In California we have four species of grebes including the Eared grebe, Pied-billed grebe, Clark’s grebe and Western Grebe.
Grebes are aquatic diving birds who spend their entire lives on water (unless they are forced on land by something like…an oil spill). Nearly everything about their anatomy has evolved for life in/on water. They have large feet with broad lobes, shifted toward their hind end, all of which facilitate skilled and precise swimming and diving. Unlike many other water birds, their wings are small and let’s just say, flying isn’t their strong suit. As such, they will dive to evade predators rather than fly away. Grebe beaks are long, sharp and pointy, perfect for impaling small crustaceans (also eyes…don’t forget your safety glasses!).
Another unique adaptation is their dense plumage with strong interlocking barbules and hooks. Anyone who has ever tried to part a grebe’s feathers in search of underlying skin knows what I mean. When their feathers are fully intact, grebes are completely waterproof, which allows them to maintain their temperature despite living in water. Grebes can even adjust the angles of their feathers to alter the amount of air trapped between their feathers, thus changing their buoyancy. In order to keep their feathers in tip top shape grebes regularly preen. They also swallow some of their discarded feathers (and even feed them to their young) to aid in digestion. Now when I say “some feathers” I actually mean a surprising number…think a cat hairball but sub in gooey feathers.
These adaptations are GREAT for a grebe living in water, not so much for a grebe forced onto land. Why might a grebe be forced onto land? [cue drumroll] … OILING. Oil disrupts the waterproof barrier that is their feather structure. Water then seeps between their feathers and comes into contact with their skin. They then lose body heat and buoyancy VERY quickly. Imagine a wet suit with tears all over it. In order to preserve warmth, grebes will find their way to land.
Once on land grebes can’t eat or drink – resulting in dehydration, loss of body condition and gastrointestinal issues. Due to the position of their legs, they have difficulty walking so they lay hunkered down in one position—resulting in keel sores and foot and hock lesions. And don’t forget they’re oiled and hypothermic (cold).
By the time an oiled grebe finds its way to a primary care center, it already has at least one (if not all) of the above listed ailments. As the veterinarian my goal is not only to treat the existing problems but also to prevent new ones. Sounds simple, right? They gray hairs on my head would beg to differ. We can correct dehydration and loss of body condition with supplemental fluids and nutrition. Gastrointestinal issues are a constant battle due to the absence of a natural diet, stress, parasites, decrease in preening or clean feathers for consumption, absence of sea water, or any combination thereof. Because of their oiling status and thus need to be out of water temporarily, we house our grebe patients in “net bottom pens” (exactly what their name describes) where they stay through pre-wash care and the early stages of conditioning. Only once they are waterproof can they go back to living in water full time. We use keel cushions, booties and various treatments to fight the seemingly never-ending battle with keel, foot and hock lesions.
Despite their many ailments and complexities as patients, I’ve truly grown to appreciate their unique anatomies, personalities and even the (in)famous grebe scream. Click here (and turn up your volume) if you’d like to too!
We have something a little different for you this week! Come along with me (Sam Christie-wildlife care specialist) and Dr. Jamie Sherman (care veterinarian) as we road trip south to visit three of our member organizations. And check out our tiny road trip buddies 👀 🐾