International Bird Rescue Celebrates 50 Years of Saving Wildlife
Learn how you can help clean and protect oiled birds.
Early on the foggy morning of Jan. 18, 1971, two Standard Oil tankers collided in San Francisco Bay near the Golden Gate Bridge. The collision resulted in 800,000 gallons of caustic, sticky crude staining the bay and surrounding beaches.
At the time, there was no recognized practice for what to do with oiled wildlife, which included more than 7,000 birds. JD Bergeron, executive director of International Bird Rescue, shared that according to news reports of the time, “hippies and long-hairs” descended on the beach to save the wildlife, which led the founding of International Bird Rescue (“Bird Rescue”).
Fast forward 50 years, and Bird Rescue has saved more than 125,000 birds and responded to over 225 major oil spills around the world with the help of Dawn. To celebrate Bird Rescue’s anniversary, Bergeron sat down with us to share more about the organization’s history, Dawn’s role in saving wildlife and what’s next.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How was the International Bird Rescue started?
JD: International Bird Rescue came to be after a very large oil spill outside of the Golden Gate Bridge in January of 1971. Alice Berkner, who was a registered nurse, helped coalesce a group of volunteers. She took the rigors and protocols of human medicine and established a way to help, bird by bird, while working with the oil company to find a solution, rather than picketing against them. It was a bunch of well-meaning volunteers willing to learn, experiment and help, and that willingness to learn became a core value of ours.
Was there a breakthrough moment when Bird Rescue realized the impact Dawn could have on cleaning birds in the aftermath of oil spills?
JD: When we started, the best thinking at the time for removing oil included things like kerosene, which were effective at breaking down petroleum but unhealthy for the birds and caretakers alike.
With time and increasing numbers of spills happening in very different locations, our founder Alice realized she would need a simple solution for cleaning oiled birds, something that could be easily found at a grocery store or hardware store. Legend has it that Alice was at the grocery store and she suspected that dish soap would be the right way to go. Blue was her favorite color, so she picked Dawn — and that was good luck. Another story says there might have been a pre-launch version of Dawn that was shared with first responders.
How critical is Dawn to rescue operations?
JD: People are often surprised that the Dawn/International Bird Rescue relationship is real and is part of our every-day. All you have to do is walk into our washroom and see all the bottles of Dawn. To clean oiled birds, you need something that functions well at high temperatures, and Dawn breaks things down while not damaging the bird’s feathers or skin. It’s the tiny presence of petroleum in dish soap that makes it effective against petroleum.
Dawn dish soap is an essential part of the bird-wash process. Dawn is tough on grease and oil pollution, but gentle on the bird’s delicate feathers and skin. The whole process usually takes less than a half-hour, and the final rinse by trained rescuers works like “magic” as birds become clean and the water starts to once again roll over the feathers — giving the birds a new chance to spread their wings. For more than 40 years, Dawn has donated thousands of bottles to Bird Rescue.
Our P&G Good Everyday member community is helping to support Bird Rescue by providing dish soap for the first wash of oil-covered birds. How is that helping to make a positive impact?
JD: It is absolutely critical that we have access to the Dawn that we do, the water that we do and the skill sets that we do as an organization. The wash is not a pleasant process, so we try to be efficient. We see that this dirty, sad bird has been put through the worst day of its life. Once the contaminant is gone, you're rinsing the soap off and you can see that there’s a transformation because of something as simple as dish soap.
In the U.S., the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 streamlined and strengthened the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills, so the number of these spills has declined. So, what does Bird Rescue do today — when it’s not providing expertise and training on wildlife response for oil spills or supporting incident response worldwide?
JD: For 365 days a year, we run two specialized wildlife hospitals for water birds, and we work with over 120 different species. We specialize in the care, surgery and rehabilitation of these birds, and we may well do more of this work than anyone else in the world — and we’re an organization that is supported by fewer than 30 staff members and approximately 300 volunteers.
We don’t spend all our time, 24/7, working on oil spills, but the idea is that when one emerges, we’re ready to go and we can put down what we’re doing (and mobilize). In an emergency, we can recognize what’s wrong with a patient from the oil contamination. We can also recognize the secondary challenges, like a lesion on the foot, and know exactly what to do. And while International Bird Rescue is in our name, we have also worked with mammals, reptiles and amphibians during oil spills.
How have Dawn dish soap donations enabled the organization to support wildlife rescue and grow over the years?
JD: Dawn is supporting an organization of trained specialists who are always looking for ways to increase survival and returning birds to the wild. If we were paying for all the soap ourselves, we couldn’t help a bird with a broken wing because our resources would be going to getting the bird clean, let alone the secondary challenges. Around 125,000 birds have been rescued by this organization in 50 years, and Dawn’s support has given us the chance to focus and grow both our knowledge and our impact.
Very recently we got a report of a sea duck that we washed during an oil spill in 1996. A bird that survived an oil spill and a wash, went out and had 23 years of life. Who knows how many young that bird brought into the world?
How can people help?
JD: We dream of a world in which every person every day takes action to protect the natural home of wildlife and ourselves. There are so many things that can go wrong for them. The environment is very challenging. We’ve built the world around ourselves. We forget that there are literally tens of thousands of insects, birds and critters that are right around us. But there are so many things that we can do every single day. And what I hope for is that everyone chooses to do that.