Happy or Hissing? 5 signs that the wild animal you rescued actually hates you.

A disastrous oil spill, a feathered victim, a rescue team, and a happy ending. The story certainly has the makings of a solid Disney movie. I’ll give you that. If you were following the news coverage of the Pipeline P00547 Incident aka the Orange County Oil Spill, then chances are you have already seen this photo of the “Happy Duck”. The image was shared widely by news outlets who referred to the ruddy duck as “Happy Duck” to depict the lighter side of response efforts as people worked together to clean up the environmental disaster. Well folks, here is where I must be the bearer of bad news. This photo does NOT depict a happy duck. This, in fact, is a decidedly unhappy duck. But don’t worry, Unhappy Duck still gets a happy ending! Let me explain.

You see, I took the infamous “Happy Duck” photo and I can testify that our ruddy duck patient was actually a simmering ball of feathery rage. Why? Because he had been abducted by terrifying primate predators and was being held against his will! (I’ll refer to Ruddy as a he, but truthfully he/she was in a phase of molt when gender is indeterminable) You see, wildlife and humans tend to mix about as well as–humor me–oil and water. For a person, an encounter with a wild bird can be an awe-inspiring, lifelong memory! Something to share with friends on social media for sure! But for a wild bird, an encounter with a much larger human would be terrifying, life-threatening, and something to avoid at all costs!

The ruddy duck is pre-treated with a solvent to begin the de-oiling process.

I snapped the photo in question the day after our lively little ruddy duck went through the cleaning process. As the first patient recovered during the oil spill, it was important to document his progress. During a large spill like this, the media and the public are watching closely. They want reassurance that the wildlife is being cared for and the OWCN is glad to provide that transparency. So following the de-oiling bath (which was probably the absolute scariest experience of his life) I seized the opportunity during his regularly scheduled exam to snap a quick progress photo. Ruddy’s transformation was remarkable! Where there had previously been thick, tarry clumps of oil and sand adhered to every inch of Ruddy’s body, there was now only a coating of supple tan and brown feathers. Perhaps most shocking was Ruddy’s drop in weight. Pre-wash, Ruddy was 560 grams. Now clean, Ruddy’s weight dropped to 440 grams. Usually weight loss is a concerning sign in wildlife rehabilitation, but in this case it meant that Ruddy was probably feeling much better after shedding over 100 grams of oil and sand! Surely this means he’s happy? No. But he’s smiling?! Wrong again.

This is a good time to check in with one of the core concepts of wildlife rehabilitation. As wildlife caregivers, it is crucial that we maintain awareness of the stress level of our patient. How can we tell if an animal is stressed? There are many indications, but they largely depend on the species and its natural defenses. In this case, ducks and geese are known to hiss and posture defensively when they feel threatened. Ever been strolling through the park when you’re suddenly approached by a hissing goose? That goose wasn’t being a jerk, she was protecting her family. A lot of people hate geese, but honestly–they’re one of my favorite birds. You’ve got to respect an animal that demands respect! You wouldn’t encounter a hissing ruddy duck at your neighborhood park though. Unlike Canada geese, ruddy ducks steer clear of humans. But when cornered by a human? Ruddy is going to defend himself in the only way he knows how. Hissing, posturing, and snapping. And that, friends, is exactly what Ruddy is doing in the photo.

The ruddy duck hisses and lunges when being picked up for treatment.

Alright, alright. Jeez, Sam–way to ruin our harmless illusion of the Happy Duck. Yeah, I know–sorry. But the thing is, it’s not always harmless illusion. Wildlife can and often do suffer at the hands of people who mistake stress and fear for sweeter emotions. We humans have a proclivity for anthropomorphizing animal’s in order to relate to them.

Anthropomorphize: verb. to attribute human form or personality to things not human.

This isn’t to say that animals aren’t capable of experiencing happiness, love, gratitude, etc. But don’t fall into the trap of assuming that YOU can accurately interpret a wild animal’s emotions. Wildlife caregivers and other keen observers of the natural world may have an easier time of deciphering a wild animal’s reactions. But for the general public, decoding these signals often goes awry and leads to an animal being subjected to undue stress. People love a feel-good story of rescuing an animal in need. And I am by no means discouraging anyone from helping animals in need! Instead, I am offering a small dose of honesty for the sake of the wild animals who you might help someday. The take home message here is this: Wild animals do not know you are trying to help them. They are terrified of you. Good intentions are wonderful, but informed good intentions are even better! Act from a place of respect and do everything in your power to minimize their fear and stress. It makes a difference!

So without any further ado, here are 5 signs that the wild animal you rescued actually hates you (or at least fears you!):

  1. Hissing, chattering, chirping – pretty much any kind of vocalization directed at a human. This indicates a very fearful and defensive wild animal. Wild animals often vocalize to distract or scare-off a predator that is pursuing them.
  2. Puffing up their fur or feathers. Posturing to make yourself appear larger is a common strategy when faced with a dangerous predator. It’s even recommended that humans use this technique if they encounter a mountain lion.
  3. Flipping onto their back. Chances are, a wild animal doesn’t want to harm you. If given the choice, it would much rather flee. But if injured or trapped, it may resort to defending itself. For species like raptors, this could mean flipping onto their back to use their sharp talons on you.
  4. Freezing in place or accepting petting. The fight or flight instinct is strong! Some animals will always choose to flee and if fleeing isn’t an option, they will completely freeze in fear. This isn’t an invitation to coo softly and pet the distressed animal! This means it’s time to either give them space or place them in a safe, quiet container for transportation to a permitted rehabilitator.
  5. Staring into your eyes. This is a time when eye contact is discouraged. That injured hawk isn’t trying to form a soul connection with you. He’s trying to anticipate your next move. He’s expecting you to attack him and he wants to be ready.

Have you ever rescued a wild animal? Or have you seen one of those popular, feel-good internet videos where someone saves a wild animal from certain death? Did you observe any of these signs of fear or stress? I hope you’re not too bummed to learn that wild animals are a lot less thankful for our help than you previously thought. Having a greater awareness of an animal’s stress response is a GOOD thing! It means we can adapt our way of helping to better suit the needs of the distressed animal. This is exactly what we do as professional wildlife responders at the OWCN. We carefully consider the stress of our patients and constantly seek ways to mitigate it for the sake of their health and wellbeing. A stressed animal might reject food, injure itself with repeated escape attempts, take longer to heal, or worse.

Ruddy spent a week on the pool perfecting his waterproofing. Even from this distance, Ruddy was wary of the photographer’s presence.

For Ruddy, we implemented a variety of things to minimize stress. Our care team always spoke minimally and with hushed voices around him. We prepared all necessary supplies ahead of time so that Ruddy’s treatments were quick and efficient. We provided a species-appropriate diet and caging. Once Ruddy was de-oiled and waterproof, we moved him outside to a pool so that he was disturbed as little as possible. Finally, when Ruddy was rehabilitated and ready for return back to the wild, we transported him in a quiet car and released him back to the wild!

Releasing the ruddy duck and an eared grebe. Photo credit: LA Times

Following his release, the media asked “Do you think he is happy to be back home? Do you think he is grateful for being rescued?” Well, to the first question – I’d like to think the answer is yes. If nothing else, he was happy to be out of my hands and back on the open water! But to the second question, I’d have to say no. I don’t think he will look back on his time with us as anything other than a terrifying ordeal he barely survived. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I’ve done hundreds of releases and I’ve never had an animal turn back and give me one last, grateful look before they fly off into the sunset. Plenty of released animals have turned to face me to make sure I’m not chasing them, but alas, no “thank you’s” or “warm wishes” were had. And that is OKAY! Helping these animals recover after an oil spill is our job and we are glad to do it, thanks or no thanks.

Want to make sure you are putting your best foot forward when rescuing a wildlife? Here are 6 ways we can all be better helpers to wildlife in distress:

  1. First question – Does the animal really need my help? Handling a wild animal should always be avoided when possible. Make sure you are intervening as a last resort and that the animal really does require assistance. Is it a baby bird simply learning to fly? Is it a fawn nestled quietly beside a tree? Is it a nest of baby bunnies without a mama in sight? If so, leave them alone! Wildlife rehabilitators are flooded with healthy baby animals every spring who were kidnapped by the well-meaning public. There are many good resources online to help you determine if a wild animal needs your help. Still not sure? Contact your local wildlife rehabilitation center.
  2. Leave the rehabilitation to the experts. Unless you are a permitted wildlife rehabilitator or you are working with one, your job is to get the animal to the people who have the skills, experience, resources, and legal ability to help. Find professional help for injured/orphaned wildlife by clicking here. Do not try to feed or provide medical attention to distressed wildlife without first consulting a rehabilitator.
  3. Keep children and pets away from wildlife! This one always surprises me. What seems like common sense to many is lost on a few. Your cat or dog, no matter how sweet, is not a good companion for the wild animal you are trying to help. Cats have deadly bacteria in their saliva. A single puncture in an animal’s skin will likely bring on a fatal infection. Your dog might be very motherly and want to cuddle the baby bunny, but your neighbor’s dogs might want to eat the bunny. Don’t teach the bunny to be friendly with dogs. And kids. Please don’t encourage your kids to handle injured or orphaned wildlife. Parasites and zoonotic diseases aside, the animal is in need of care by a qualified adult. Unnecessary handling from kids is the last thing it needs.
  4. Safely contain the animal. For most species, the best way to pick them up is by draping a towel over them and gently lifting them up with the towel. Place them into a box with some air holes. You want a box big enough that the animal can easily turn around, but not so large that they have room to jump around. I’ve seen animals arrive to rehabilitation centers in all kinds of wacky containers. Sometimes you’ve got to be creative, but the important thing is using a container. Carrying the animal on your lap prolongs the scariest part of the experience for the animal–handling by humans.
  5. Minimize disturbances. Keep things quiet. Turn off your music in the car while transporting and put your barking dog away. Dim the lights if possible. If you aren’t able to transport the injured animal right away place their container in quiet spot. There’s no need to check on the animal every five minutes. Doing so is only going to stress them further.
  6. Try to prevent human-wildlife conflicts. Often times, human activity is the root cause of a wild animal’s injury. Whether they’ve been contaminated during an oil spill, attacked by a domestic cat, collided with a window, ate a poisoned rat, or were hit by a car, today’s wildlife face an unprecedented number of threats due to the actions of humans. Consider how your daily routine, home, and pets might be a positive or negative impact on wildlife. Being a helper to wildlife can come in many forms!

To all of you out there who have been helpers of wildlife–we salute you! Whether the animal thanked you with a hiss, a scratch, a well-aimed poop, or in no way at all–I’d just like to say:

Thank you.

– Sam

A little bird with a BIG impact

Over the past two months you’ve heard a lot about the Pipeline P00547 oil spill. The spill has been featured in hundreds of news articles (local and national) as well as on social media and our very own OWCN blog posts. Thank you to Jennie and Danene for highlighting the hard work of our first and foremost VIP’s (very important people) of the spill, the 90+ field and care responders representing approximately 1/3 of our member orgs. I’d like to take this blogging opportunity to highlight the other VIP’s (very important patients) of the Pipeline P00547 spill, the western snowy plovers.

All about Our Western Snowy VIPlovers

The western snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) were the smallest patients in our care throughout the spill, weighing in at a whopping 35-40g, or roughly the size of a large chicken egg. The Pacific population of these little shorebirds can range from southern Washington, all the way down to Baja California, Mexico.

Western snowy plovers can be spotted year-round on coastal beaches, peninsulas, and even bays, estuaries or river outlets up to 50 miles inland. You might find them displaying the classic “run-stop-peck” in which they forage for crustaceans, worms, and other small marine invertebrates that they find in wet sand and kelp. When they are not running along the shoreline, snowy plovers seemingly disappear into their surrounding landscape. Western snowy plovers are masters of camouflage with their sand-colored feathers along the top part of their body and sand-speckled appearance of their eggs.

Masters of camouflage….

Snowy plover clutches typically contain 3 eggs and some plovers can lay two clutches per year. Females may breed with more than one male. In fact, after their eggs hatch they will often leave chick rearing duties to the male in order to re-nest with another male if there is adequate time left in the season. Snowy plovers display high site fidelity, and are often spotted at the same nesting locations year after year. Snowy plovers communicate to each other with “chirp-like” calls. They also use body language, such as drooping a wing or limping to signal the presence of a predator. Click here to listen to some common snowy plover calls.

Did you know that newborn snowy plovers leave their nest within 3 hours of hatching and immediately begin foraging on their own?

So, why was this little bird such a big deal? Well, in 1993 the Pacific population of western snowy plovers was listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Factors such as human disturbance, predation, inclement weather and encroachment due to urban development have played a large role in the decline of active nesting sites, and subsequently reproduction. From March to September snowy plovers establish nesting sites in small depressions in the sand. Human activities such as walking, jogging, off-leash pets, horseback riding and vehicle use can disturb these sites resulting in nest abandonment. Goals of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Western snowy plover Recovery plan include: (1) achieving well-distributed increases in numbers and productivity of breeding adult birds, and (2) providing for long-term protection of breeding and wintering plovers and their habitat.

Left: Oiled western snowy plover; Center: Stabilization enclosure; Right: Western snowy plover being examined by veterinarian prior to release. Photo credits OWCN/UC Davis

Even though western snowy plovers don’t live in water, oil can still have a big impact on their ability to waterproof and therefore thermoregulate. Given their small stature and nearly non-existent fat stores, they rely on their feather structure to keep warm, especially during inclement weather. When western snowy plovers get cold they have to expend their energy getting warm, instead of foraging for food or running away from predators. They can quickly become emaciated and dehydrated, resulting in severe debilitation. During the Pipeline P00547 spill, our initial snowy plover care focused on getting these tiny patients warm, hydrated and eating. Once stabilized we were able to focus on secondary concerns including skin burns and minor injuries.

Fortunately all 7 of our VIPatients made a full recovery and were released back to their native habitats where they can continue to contribute to the recovery of the Pacific population of western snowy plovers!

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the safe capture, care and release of these special little birds!

For more information about the western snowy plovers we cared for during the Pipeline P00547 oil spill check out this video and article by UC Davis.

~ Jamie, owcn response veterinarian

Reflections from the Pipeline P00547 Primary Care Facility

As we begin to wrap-up primary care operations at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care & Education Center (LAOBCEC) I can’t help but reflect on the amazing effort that the OWCN responders have put into the Pipeline P00547 incident. Since being activated, our Network responders have worked tirelessly to meet the OWCN’s mission of providing “best achievable capture and care to oil affected wildlife”. 

Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center, Managed by OWCN Member Organization International Bird Rescue.
Photo: Danene Birtell, OWCN

To put that into numbers, since the beginning of October, approximately 90 unique responders have clocked over 6,000 hours of time directly working with and for the animals collected during this event. More than half of those hours represented the dedicated team of individuals that were assigned to the Care & Processing Group. This Group was responsible for the documentation and rehabilitation of any animal that our incredible Field Operations Group sent our way. We were met with some unique challenges (or injects as we like to call them during drill time) and I am honored to have worked alongside such a dedicated and talented group of individuals. 

Photo: Eunah Preston, OWCN

With that, I thought it would be great for our readers to get a first-hand glimpse to what it’s like to be an OWCN responder. Here’s what a few of them had to say regarding how they got involved with the OWCN.

I became a member of the OWCN back in 2008 when I started working at International Bird Rescue. International Bird Rescue is one of the primary care facilities and long-term members of the network.  Since then, I have participated in the numerous online webinar courses and in-person training opportunities provided by the OWCN.”

Kylie Clatterbuck, International Bird Rescue

“The organization I work for, Point Blue Conservation Science (Point Blue), has been responding to oil spills since 1971, playing a lead role in many spills in oiled wildlife processing (species identification, data and evidence collection, and evidence management). In 1997, after I had just completed an internship with Point Blue, I was offered the opportunity to respond to the Kure spill in Humboldt Bay, and that was my first response, conducting wildlife processing. At that time the work was done by Point Blue under OSPR but in close collaboration with OWCN. Shortly thereafter, processing fell directly under OWCN’s umbrella and we began to work even more closely together and have ever since. I’ve been responding to spills for 24 years now, and during much of this time I have been the response and preparedness coordinator for Point Blue, one of OWCN’s many member organizations.”

Diana Humple, Point Blue Conservation Science

“I got involved with OWCN back in 2015 during the Refugio Oil Spill Incident.  I had been volunteering at the International Bird Rescue (IBR) Center in San Pedro at the time of the spill, having been working in the capacity of animal care/support volunteer since 2014.  During the spill response, I served under the guidance of OWCN and IBR staff at the IBR center, assisting with washing oiled wildlife and providing overall clinic support.  I decided to take my 24-hour HAZWOPER Training subsequent to that as well as the OWCN Basic Responder Training to ensure that I would be eligible to be activated to the field should volunteers be needed for help in another oil spill response.”

Diana Burke, OWCN Responder 

Dr. Duane Tom & Kylie Clatterbuck examine a western grebe. Photo: OWCN

Depending on the complexity of a response there may be just a few or many roles to fill. As the response expands and contracts individuals may be asked to shift around, sometimes filling multiple roles to meet the demands of the incident, such as those described below.

“During Pipeline P00547 I was part of the animal care staff who stabilized, washed, and conditioned the animals affected by the oil spill for release back into the wild. As Center Manager of International Bird Rescue, I also worked on logistics and alongside the OWCN team members to coordinate responders.”

Kylie Clatterbuck

      “Care Vet and Intake and Processing” (Duane also worked as Wildlife Recovery Staff and was the Field Stabilization Group Supervisor before joining the team at the Primary Care Facility.)

Dr. Duane Tom, UC Davis/OWCN Management Team

“I was the Processing Strike Team Lead, overseeing a small team of biologists who conducted the species identification, data and evidence collection, and evidence management of the oiled wildlife – predominantly the birds – collected during the response. We were responsible for doing this for all the birds found dead, while working alongside the Care staff to help collect this for the live birds, in order to allow them to focus as much as possible on the animal care side of things.”

Diana Humple

“My role at the Primary Care Facility was to assist the OWCN and IBR oil spill responder staff with anything they needed, whether that be assisting in replacing and refilling buckets of water during a bird wash, setting up or cleaning enclosures, preparing food and gavages for tube feeding, etc.”

Diana Burke

Diana Humple and Dr. Jamie Sherman examine a Snowy Plover. Photo: OWCN

Emergency response can be challenging yet rewarding. When asked to reflect on their favorite and most challenging part of the response here’s what members of our team had to say:

“The hardest part is the need for speed, efficiency, and accuracy that are all critical to a successful response, and the pressure that comes from working in such an environment. The pressure can be intense during a response, but it also a challenge that it is exciting to have to rise to, as it is a privilege to be able to participate in this capacity and to know that ultimately what we are doing is in the best interest of the wildlife impacted and to future wildlife and natural resources.”

“Although it didn’t take place at the Primary Care Facility, probably my favorite experience was when I was able to attend the release on Huntington Beach of some of the Snowy Plovers and Sanderlings that had been rehabilitated and cleaned.”

Diana Humple

“One of my favorite parts of the response was getting the chance to work more closely with Snowy Plovers. I also really enjoyed getting to meet and work more closely with many of the newer team members of the OWCN.”

“The hardest part of any response is taking the time to insure you are maintaining a good self-care routine.”

Kylie Clatterbuck

Favorite Part: Getting to work with all the great people at IBR” 

Hardest Part: “The intricacies of Processing.  And NOAA Chain of Custody forms!”

Dr. Duane Tom

“One of my favorite experiences during the response was my assignment as a field operations volunteer.  I reported for duty at the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center field operations staging area in Huntington Beach and was paired up with an amazing veterinarian from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, Dr. Alissa Deming, to survey a designated part of the beach looking for oiled wildlife.”

“Undoubtedly, the hardest part of the oil spill response for me was having to accept that it is not always possible to rescue every bird which may need care.”

Diana Burke

Kylie Clatterbuck & Samantha Christie release a ruddy duck and eared grebe. Photo: Paul Beresbach, Orange County Register

After each response we go through a process of outlining “what we learned”, “what went well”, and “what can we do to improve future responses”, AKA the “hotwash”. Following this process, we always walk away with lessons learned, such as:

“I had better be sure to get the species correct the first time for processing because correcting it after the fact is very involved!”

Dr. Duane Tom

“For me, I learned to slow down a bit and take the time needed to provide for these nuances and appreciate the challenges that come with each type of animal.”

Kylie Clatterbuck

            “A million! I am so impressed by how prepared California is to respond to oil spills, and how seriously the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, that I am a part of, takes that preparedness; in fact, we do a lot of work outside of actual spill response so that we can meet the next event with an even stronger response, and even better “best practices”.

Diana Humple

“The number one lesson learned was that although I strive to do my best as a responder, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will always be possible for me to rescue all wildlife which I come across in an oil spill response. It is a heartbreaking fact, but it’s something I have had to learn to accept.”

Diana Burke

As we approach the final phase of the response, Demobilization, I reflect on how fortunate we are to have the support of CDFW-OSPR and our amazing Network of responders. We thank YOU for your ongoing dedication to the OWCN’s mission.

Dr. Jamie Sherman examines a western grebe. Photo: OWCN

I’d also like to give an extra special shout out to our Care Veterinarian, Dr. Jamie Sherman who is the currently the last deployed responder. She is currently in San Pedro providing care and veterinary oversight for the last few patients. 

Take care, and for those who were deployed – get well deserved some rest!


Danene Birtell, Readiness Coordinator – Care Operations

Notes From the Field: Orange County Spill

Although the Pipeline P00547 Incident has not quite come to a close, the majority of the field recovery teams have been sent home. We still have a few “hotshot” teams on standby to respond to calls of confirmed oiled animal sightings, but the rest of us have been demobilized to blend back into our everyday lives. Thus, I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the incredible people who helped make our field response to this oil spill possible.

There were about 37 responders from our network from various member organizations who helped in the recovery of oiled wildlife, both dead and alive, throughout the duration of our field response. Each responder was immensely valuable to our recovery efforts, and I’d like to share some unique perspectives and experiences of several of them. So, sit down, relax, grab a cup of coffee, and let your imagination wander to the Southern California coastline as our responders take you along the beaches of Orange County.

Field teams attending the daily safety briefing. Photo Credit: Eunah Preston

Steffani Jarrett, CIMWI :

“We were sent to the harbor docks to check on an injured and oiled pelican.  By the time we arrived the bird had moved to the bait dock, which, unfortunately was only accessible by boat.  After a few calls, the harbor patrol agreed to give us a ride.  As we approached the dock, the deputies told us (a little late) that the bait dock workers don’t like them and will not allow them to dock.  After some shouting, we were allowed to dock, and the pelican jumped in the water as soon as we stepped on the dock.  Using fish bribes from Wetlands Wildlife we were able to safely capture the pelican.  The last hurdle was that the bird was very cold, and our crate only fit in the truck bed.  So, we wrapped the bird in towels and wedged it into a cardboard container and transported it in the backseat for treatment.   Despite all our troubles, the pelican did not appreciate our efforts and displayed its frustrations. However, we felt good knowing it was going to get the help it needed.”  

Tamara Tamburro, CIMWI & now, new PMMC volunteer too:

“I’m a grandma who decided to get her Masters in conservation biology late in life. I moved to Ventura during the UME for sea lions and started volunteering for CIMWI. While at CIMWI I became involved with OWCN. I have been training with you guys for several years hoping you wouldn’t need me, but ready if you ever made the call. I just moved to Newport Beach 3 months before this awful spill happened. I live in the Bluffs above Upper Newport Bay so this happened in my new “backyard.” I was very motivated to help, and I got partnered with Susan (Kaveggia) from IBR. It was awesome working with a bird expert; I think we made a great team. We walked lots of miles, got super tired, and I made a new friend. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but hope I never have to. We thankfully didn’t find any oiled wildlife, but it was still an amazing experience just being there. I think the thing that touched me most was all the donated food, including goodie bags.”

Colleen Young, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (OSPR):

“I had a funny interaction with a reporting party who had called to report an oiled bird to the hotline. I called the reporting party back to get more info about an “oiled duck” in Newport Harbor they had seen. When I told him I was calling him about the oiled duck he reported, he said, ‘It’s not a duck but it’s a bird type duck.’ Thanks, that really clears it up! When I asked him if it looked oiled, he said he wasn’t sure but ‘he’s been in the same facility for over 24 hours, and that seems highly unusual.’ Riiiiiight…whatever that means! With that kind of great information, you can imagine we weren’t that surprised when the animal turned out not to be oiled and not to be a duck, but rather the juvenile yellow-crowned night heron that had been frequenting that area. We were glad that it didn’t end up being oiled and to have a chance to see a new bird (we don’t have them on the central coast and from what I understand they are somewhat rare in southern CA as well).”

Gayle Uyehara, UC Davis Wildlife Health Center:

While deployed, what were the days like? 

  • Hot…… I got the hot days……

What was the hardest part? 

  • Trying to keep pushing through the heat and towards the end of my support, the long day walking.

What was your favorite part? 

  • Getting to work with a longtime family friend (Susan Kaveggia) doing something we are both passionate about and knowing we had each other’s six. Our rescue experience adds up to many years so if there was something to be found, alive or dead, I had confidence we would find it in our search areas. 

Did you use any special techniques to capture something?

  • No, but we did have a method to our searching – and parking in a strategic spot while back-tracking to the car (basically hop-scotching ahead to park) allowed us to make sure we covered our area.

What aspect was the most fun?

  • Actually, learning about the coastal area (specifically the 4 marshes we covered) to the point where I’ll go back and join the local conservancy group in order to draw and paint the endangered flora.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience?

  • I forgot what it was like for the general public and their genuine thankfulness that we were there for the birds took me by surprise. I know we train in the event of a spill but there are rewards that go beyond the ability to help the animals during a spill. 

Carleton Eyster, Point Blue Conservation Science:

While deployed, what were your days like? 

  • Awesome! From start to finish.

What was the hardest part? 

  • Navigating the hundreds of cleanup personnel (& vehicles!!:) while trying to target individual oiled birds. Isolating a bird for capture is hard enough on a quiet beach, with no disturbance, and is usually best done with just one or two people.

What was your favorite part? 

  • The amazing coordination and dedication of so many people for a united cause! Our final capture of the hard-luck banded female exemplified this effort, with 5 or 6 of us, from different orgs and parts of the state, collectively herding her over the noose mats! Just brilliant! Oh, and the best Philly Cheesesteak west of Philadelphia!

What aspect was the most fun? 

  • Seeing a net gun used successfully on a small shorebird (two, in fact!).

An oiled Snowy plover captured by Carleton Eyster. Photo credit: OWCN

Monica Frank, International Bird Rescue – South:

“The most ‘interesting’ day I had was with Susan Kaveggia when we unknowingly walked a nude beach!  We went down to San Onofre State Beach and after walking the length of that beach decided to check the southern end on Camp Pendleton property.  As we started to walk the trail one gentleman in front of us said he’d be “respectful” and wait for us to pass before he undressed.  Not quite sure what he meant by that, we then started to see bare bums and knew what we were in for!  We stayed on mission with eyes focused on the shoreline.  One friendly gentleman walking towards us with only his walking stick stopped us to ask us about the spill.  We kindly engaged in conversation with eyes up!

It was my first time being deployed for Wildlife Recovery and I really enjoyed it.  Though I didn’t capture any live oiled birds, I enjoyed contributing to the recovery efforts by recording the flighted oiled birds seen, picking up dead birds and walking miles and miles of beach.  And it was nice to go to beaches I’d never been to before.”

Maria Gracza, SeaWorld San Diego:

“I was deployed within the first few days of our oil spill response, and it was a memorable experience. I am very experienced in marine mammal rescue, and very inexperienced with bird rescue. Upon seeing my first oiled bird, I was determined to catch it. Unfortunately, birds are very hard to capture when they still have good use of their wings and can fly far away. After a few failed attempts the first day of capturing oiled birds, I was feeling a little defeated, although I still had scoured miles of beaches collecting important data. The next morning, I found an oiled western gull who happened to have some fishing line around its body so its flying abilities were impacted. After running around on the beach for what seemed like a very long time, I was eventually able to net it and transport it back to Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center for stabilization. It was a great feeling and made the miles of scouring the beaches afterwards more enjoyable! I would help with another oil spill anytime.”


Pipeline P00547 Incident: Reflections from the ICP

Hello all – Sorry that the OWCN Management Team has missed a few days of blogging, but as you are most assuredly aware, we are a bit busy right now….

The wildlife response for the Pipeline P00547 Incident (name just flows off the tongue, doesn’t it?) is going very well to date. We currently have more than 50 responders on site – doing extensive recovery (from Long Beach Harbor down to Oceanside), field stabilization at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach, and primary care at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center (home to International Bird Rescue). Overall, as of yesterday, we have had more than 80 overall responders from 14 of our 44 Member Organizations involved in the effort. Absolutely amazing, and makes me so proud of all we have collectively developed to respond quickly and in a coordinated fashion anywhere oil may be oiled!

As of yesterday, we have collected 26 live birds and 17 dead – a much lower number than we feared based on the initial volume estimates. There are a number of possible reasons for this: time of year resulting in fewer animals at risk, lower actual released oil than was initially thought, etc. What is ABSOLUTELY certain, however, is that it isn’t due to a lack of search effort!

Right now, aside from the ruddy duck that has been christened “Happy Duck” by our friends in the Joint Information Center, the most notable story has been the successful collection of 7 live oiled snowy plovers to date. This Federally-threatened species is a highly sensitive species, and one that can be very difficult to capture effectively. By bringing in additional experienced partners from a number of organizations and agencies (including our own Point Blue Conservation Science) who have used specialized snares to rescue these birds. They are currently doing very well in care – in fact, they are eating machines, gaining weight quickly even before being washed! We will keep folks updated as we can, but there is an excellent piece in today’s Los Angeles Times if you want to learn more.

For me, being “trapped” at the Incident Command Post is both a frustration and an honor. Frustration because I REALLY want to be directly working with the animals in our care (after all, I didn’t go to vet school to help coordinate disasters!), but also a real privilege to work within a coordinated Unified Command, alongside Greg McGowan and Laird Henkel of CDFW-OSPR, and helping to make sure everyone in my team: 1) gets what they need, and 2) are shielded from getting things they don’t. All joking aside, it is an honor to be able to lead such a stellar program and to have such rock stars amongst the >1,600 trained OWCN responders, 44 Member Organizations, 12+ facilities to make emergencies such as this effective, efficient, and – most importantly – impactful on the wildlife entrusted to us.

Being at this ICP has made me reflect on the previous incident I blogged extensively on – the Deepwater Horizon spill in (gasp!) 2010. Being the lead of the Oiled Marine Mammal/Sea Turtle Unit (OMTU) on behalf of NOAA (and alongside Teri Rowles and Sarah Wilkin) in that incident has both similarities as well as distinct differences. One strong similarity is, and may always be, the massive increase in my caffeine intake throughout the day. For a day in my life during that event, go ahead and read (or re-read if you are an old timer like me) that blog post to get a sense of what a paper-pusher in a spill often does. Also, for a tour of that Command Post, take a look at this later post.

As things morph and develop on this response, we will likely be more utilizing our social media outlets extensively (expertly managed by Eunah Preston, who is here on site) as well as media interviews/info (shepherded by Kat Kerlin from UCD, who is brilliantly acting as border collie to me – the sheep – in attempting to make order out of the dozens of chaotic inquiries coming in), so its likely we won’t be blogging extensively on the effort until afterwards – or at least until it slows down a bit.

But rest assured – the entire OWCN community is working tirelessly to recover and care for any animals affected by this disaster. And we will continue as long as necessary!


Oilapalooza 2021: Virtual Connections

We are pleased to announce that the 2021 Oiled Wildlife Care Network Oilapalooza Conference is scheduled for Saturday, October 23rd. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic we will be hosting an entirely virtual conference via Zoom. The conference will run from approximately 9:00am – 4:00pm, with breaks and lunch incorporated. (plus we will be hosting an optional Oilapalooza After Hours Virtual Reception from 4:30pm – 6:00pm)

We would like to extend an invitation for all OWCN responders* to virtually join us. If you are interested in attending please log into your responder profile and click on the ‘Opportunities’ tab, then scroll down to the ‘Upcoming Training Opportunities’ category. Please Note: The OWCN Core Webinar Series is a firm prerequisite in order to register for Oilapalooza.

Please register by no later than Friday, October 15th. Additionally, if you have any questions about the event or the Core Webinar prerequisite, please email us at owcn@ucdavis.edu.

*Not an OWCN responder but interested in becoming one? To join the OWCN, you must be at least 18 years of age, and an active staff member or volunteer with one of our 44 Member Organizations. Click here to view all of our Member Orgs!

What is Oilapalooza? For any of you that have not heard of or attended an Oilapalooza before, it is the OWCN’s biennial conference usually held in rotating locations around the state of CA.

This year’s virtual conference will consist of lectures on a diverse range of spill response topics, followed by a virtual evening networking event that will allow our amazing responder community to connect and have some fun. The entire day will be hosted via Zoom. More detailed programmatic information, including the lecture topics and speakers, will be announced soon.  

2022-2023 Call for Research Proposals

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) is currently seeking proposals from researchers and wildlife professionals who are interested in getting answers to questions that will:

  • Enhance our ability to save more animals
  • Increase efficient use of current resources
  • Facilitate adoption of new, effective technologies

Specifically, we are soliciting:

  • Pre‐proposals for full research projects (> $15,000/yr for up to three years, with yearly re‐application) 
  • Small grant proposals for lower cost/pilot research projects (up to $15,000 for one year of funding)
  • Proposals with direct application to OWCN readiness and response will be prioritized!

For more details regarding grant guidelines, proposal format, examples of previously-funded projects, and the review process, please visit the OWCN’s website and check out our Request for Pre-Proposals and Small Grant Proposals PDF.


  • Investigators requesting > $15,000 (or for multiple years of support), should submit a pre-proposal no later than 5:00 pm (PST) on 15 October 2021. Should the pre-proposal be favorably reviewed, a full proposal will be required. Multi-year projects are considered. However, annual application, provision of complete and timely progress reports, and competitive review are required to maintain ongoing funding.
  • Small-grant proposals should be submitted no later than 5:00 pm (PST) on 23 December 2021.

If you have questions, please contact Katie Leasure at kaleasure@ucdavis.edu or at (530) 752-7526.


As many of our faithful blog readers are aware, 2021 is proving to be yet another record year for wildfires in the west, with overall fire seasons starting earlier and ending later than long-term averages. What this means in terms of on-the-ground firefighting is that resources are stretched thin across the state. Resources, in this sense, include different types of fire engines, aerial firefighting aircraft, and personnel. Along with these resources, though, is the intricate structure to support all those resources such as food, water, hotels, fuel, to name a few. 

Because of the breadth, intensity, and duration of the wildfires, fighting these types of disasters relies heavily on mutual aid agreements between fire departments, counties, states, and even at the federal level. Mutual aid agreements are in place ahead of the emergency to formalize the promise of assistance when local emergencies, such as fires, exceed local capacities. 

One of the many California fires, this one within miles of my house in 2020.

The OWCN, as many of you know, is a formalized network of 44 Member Organizations that work together for a common mission: to capture and provide care to oil-affected wildlife. In following the common theme of this blog of “mutual aid”, the OWCN operates within this common framework for oil spills – working together for the common good. As we all know, though, oil spills are not the only crisis that can show up in our day-to-day lives.

This was such the case recently when there was a seabird crisis in Long Beach Harbor. Thousands of Elegant Tern chicks that had fledged on two barges in the harbor were falling off into the water before being able to fly. Because the barge edges were so steep, once they fell into the water, many chicks were drowning as they were unable to get back on the barge.

A wet Elegant Tern chick that was rescued. Red dye was used to mark the chicks to help monitor them after they were released (OWCN Photo).

Fortunately, International Bird Rescue (IBR) quickly jumped into action and, with the help of several partners, was able to rescue more than 2,000 chicks. As of August 12, there were still 105 chicks in care at the San Pedro wildlife center. IBR is one of OWCN’s key partners, managing our two largest bird rehabilitation centers, and when IBR’s Executive Director JD Bergeron asked us to assist, we were more than happy to deploy two staff and one of our inflatable boats down to Long Beach. While there, days consisted of scooping up drenched tern chicks, giving them a quick medical exam, marking them, and placing them back on the barge if they did not need medical attention.  Otherwise, the chicks were placed in a box and transported to the center in San Pedro for further care.

Jamie taking a bit of a breather in between captures, with Wendy at the helm (not pictured; OWCN Photo).
One of the Elegant Tern chicks that was rescued (OWCN Photo).

If you would like to learn more about the Elegant Tern incident, we invite you to join our next Town Hall on Friday, September 10, from 1200-1300 via Zoom. This particular Town Hall will include a panel discussion on lessons learned from this incident, with participants from IBR, OWCN, CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, and the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific.  You won’t want to miss this!

The simple act of reaching out to the wider community when a crisis occurs can provide a great benefit to animals that may need our assistance. And, as Aristotle so wisely put it, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  If the last year-and-a-half has shown us anything, it has shown us that we are all intricately connected and part of a larger whole. Helping one another – as individuals, organizations, or communities – makes the world a better place.  And I don’t know about you, but that is the type of world I prefer to live in.


OWCN’s Impact in CA and Beyond- Final Project Update!

Back in May, I blogged about an awesome project being carried out by a team of UC Davis graduate students – Jenny, Mikayla, and Nick – in the Environmental Policy & Management program

They had embarked on an assessment of OWCN’s influence on oiled wildlife care throughout California and globally, with their three main research objectives being:

  1. Understand the overall impact that the OWCN has had on state, national, and international efforts to focus on oiled wildlife actions
  2. Explore the impact of the OWCN’s competitive grants program on developing information that has led to policy changes
  3. Develop a gap analysis to identify areas where additional OWCN focus would be best

At the time of the previous blog, the team was just finishing up an extensive literature review, and was about ready to send the survey they had created out to oiled wildlife response groups, the oil industry, and the general public. You can read about their project development process here.

Well, it has been only a couple of months and not only have they finished their literature review and received their survey results, but they have interviewed competitive grant recipients as well and have created a complete report, including a video final report for the OWCN on their findings and recommendations, which can be viewed here:

And with that, the work is now in the hands of the OWCN to assess and incorporate these recommendations into our future efforts to continue to improve the best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife.


A jacuzzi for oiled birds?

In this blog from May, we explored the finer details of the rinse process and I gave a sneak peek at a new device being designed for the OWCN. That device, designed by engineering students from UC Davis, is now complete.

Introducing the Recirculating Wash System, or as we sometimes call it, the Jacuzzi for Oiled Birds:

The pump and battery housing is contained on the left while the animal is washed within the tub on the right. The device is designed to work with a range of wash tub sizes.

First, let’s get into some background on this collaboration. This is the Oiled Wildlife Care Network’s second year sponsoring projects with School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. OWCN management team member, Jennie Hawkins, discovered this excellent opportunity for collaboration and worked with the first teams to design projects such as a net gun and hazing line launcher. We submit project proposals detailing the need for a custom device to accomplish or improve a task related to our mission of providing hazing, capture, and care to oil-affected wildlife. Student teams then select the project they are most interested in and work with their sponsor throughout the semester to develop a design. In non-COVID years, the students build a physical prototype, but without access to their lab, the past two years have concluded with written reports instead.

I worked with the student design team over the spring semester to help guide them through the process of developing such a niche device. Our objective was to develop a handheld device that can be operated by the bird washer in a wash tub. The device will propel water in a controlled direction beneath the surface of the water, similar to a jacuzzi tub jet. The purpose of such a device is to significantly cut down on both the duration of the wash process and the physical exertion of the human washer.

We developed the following design criteria to meet our needs for safety while ensuring implementation of the device would be practical.

  • The concentration of soap in the water and the water temperature is important to the decontamination process, so ideally the handheld jet will recirculate the wash tub’s water rather than introduce new water.
  • The device must be operational underwater and in the presence of soap and petroleum oil.
  • The device should be able to be operated by one hand, ideally either right or left.
  • The device should be relatively quiet (conversation volume or lower) so as not stress our patients.
  • The device should be able to be taken apart and cleaned as needed.
  • The device intake should have a grate to keep feathers from clogging it since loose feathers will occasionally be in the wash tub. The operator can occasionally manually remove feathers built up on the grate.
  • The device must be safe for both the operator and the bird. No trauma or electrocution hazard.
  • The device should be rechargeable or have a waterproof battery compartment or plug-in (if feasible).
  • The device should be able to run for at least 1 hour on a single charge or have a replaceable battery.
  • The output of the device should have enough pressure to flush water through feathers, but not so much that it would cause discomfort or injury (less than 60 PSI).
  • The device should generate a minimum amount of bubbles, as bubbles decrease visibility during the wash process.

Throughout the design process, the students identified solutions to meeting each of these criteria. The total weight of the device is under 30 pounds, meaning that it can easily be deployed to a spill along with our other response equipment. It operated with a rechargeable battery which can run for at least an hour on a single charge. The design can also be adapted to plug-in for power. Using a flow simulation process (that is way over my head), the students also managed to ensure that the device would attain our desired water pressure of 40-60 PSI.

While the design was initially intended to compliment the wash process in a tub with detergent, we also came up with additional potential uses along the way. From the beginning, we anticipated the potential of having excess bubbles from the detergent. Afterall, there’s a reason you don’t want to add suds to a jacuzzi! However, we are still optimistic that the bubbles generated by the system will be manageable. If they prove to be overwhelming, we propose using the device in a plain water rinse tub instead of a soapy wash tub. In a rinse tub, the device would assist with flushing the soap from feathers before the bird is transferred to a traditional out-of-water rinse station.

Another potential use involves a taxa that can be a big challenge in regards to decontamination: marine mammals. Removing very large cetaceans or pinnipeds from the beach in order to decontaminate them may sometimes not be feasible. In these cases, we might look for a way to bring the washing to them. Having a portable, recirculating washing device with strong water pressure would be an asset for this kind of in-situ washing scenario.  

We are still considering all of the possibilities that the Recirculating Wash System might provide. If we do move forward with building a physical prototype, it will be thoroughly tested before it gets the greenlight for live animal decontamination. Exploring new technologies is an exciting frontier for us at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. We know that there is much to be learned and much to be gained when we strive to improve on existing technologies and practices.

We’d like to thank Jordan, Jenna, Sean, Jonathan, Nicholas, and Carlos from our student design team for their hard work, enthusiasm, and professionalism! And another big thank you to the Wildlife Health and Technology Group who developed the awesome 3D-printed wildlife rinse nozzle featured in the design drawings.