The “Mystery Goo” Bird Event

by Rebecca Duerr DVM MPVM PhD; International Bird Rescue

The mystery begins…

mystery goo timeline

On the afternoon of Friday, January 16, 2015, International Bird Rescue (IBR) received word that there were approximately 50 surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) sitting on the beach at East Bay Regional Shoreline on San Francisco Bay. As a diving duck that lives almost entirely on the water except during breeding season, we knew sitting on the beach was extremely unusual behavior for scoters and it was likely the birds were contaminated with something affecting their waterproofing. Aquatic birds like scoters rely on their normally waterproof plumage to provide buoyancy and insulation against cold water. When the feathers become contaminated, they quickly become cold and exhausted from struggling to swim, and are driven to get out of the water to dry off and rest. Seabirds become emaciated very rapidly when cold and unable to forage; therefore time is of the essence to rescue them before they starve to death.

Horned grebe
Horned grebe (Podiceps auritus) also known as ‘gummy bear’ covered in “mystery goo”

East Bay Regional Parks personnel captured the birds and delivered them to our center for care Friday evening. When we examined the birds, we found cold, wet birds with a range of feather contamination. Some had a few areas where feathers were stuck together, some had blobs of sticky material causing the feathers to mat together in a thick mess. Some birds were stuck to towels or paper lining the transport containers. Whatever this substance was, we knew it wasn’t petroleum oil, but it was definitely an environmental contaminant of some kind. It had the texture of a hardened epoxy, slightly tacky to the touch but did not come off on gloves. Thick sections of it showed a translucent grey color. Since we didn’t know what the material was, we weren’t sure we would be able to wash it off the birds. We also didn’t know how hazardous the material was; hence, we erred on the side of caution and required all staff and volunteers working with the contaminated birds to wear the same personal protective gear they would wear during an oil spill.

Expert wild bird care

International Bird Rescue volunteer washing female surf scoter
International Bird Rescue volunteer washing female surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)

International Bird Rescue’s most experienced bird washers went to work in the wash room Friday night to figure out how to remove the substance, as simple detergent did not cut it. If they were not able to figure out this crucial step, we may have been forced to euthanize all affected birds. It is not possible to pluck feathers and keep species such as scoters out of water for the months needed to regrow a complete set of new feathers, so that was not an option. Thankfully, by late Friday night our staff had worked out a procedure that seemed to do the trick, and they planned to try it on a few birds Saturday morning. The birds were stabilized with warmth, fluids, and food overnight.

Contaminated bird area at the International Bird Rescue San Francisco Bay Center
Contaminated bird area at the International Bird Rescue San Francisco Bay Center

On Saturday morning, a dozen birds were washed and progressed through our post-wash waterproofing procedure. Although the birds were more difficult to clean and harder to waterproof after washing than oiled birds usually are, the wash protocol appeared to be working. Each bird took about twice as long to wash as an oiled bird, and several needed to be washed again. Meanwhile, more birds were being found on the beaches. Our wash teams got to work intensively washing birds as fast as possible. By January 24, 313 live birds had been collected and brought to us for care, and one of our wildlife center managers made her goal of 50 birds washed on her 50th birthday.

Although I later shifted to medical and surgical management of the numerous injuries of these birds, my role as IBR’s veterinarian at the beginning of this event was to lead the team caring for birds prior to wash. We were very busy examining birds for medical problems and injuries, and providing birds with warmth, fluids and nutrition to strengthen them for the stressful wash process.

Nutritional support

Surf scoters are primarily molluskivores, which means they mostly eat mollusks such as clams, mussels, and snails, but may consume any aquatic small prey animals such as worms, crustaceans, or fish eggs. In captivity, surf scoters readily eat fish and do very well. We typically feed them small fish such as night smelt when they are eating on their own, or tube feed blended fish slurry when they are not. Many of the “goo birds” in care were not eating reliably and were tube fed up to six times a day. By the third day of the event, I noticed that the most malnourished and emaciated birds were having problems digesting their blended fish. Several birds were regurgitating their nutritional tubings and a few had died; it appeared food was just sitting in their stomachs decomposing instead of being digested. At that point, I decided the birds’ best chance was to feed them Emeraid Piscivore

Emeraid Piscivore to the rescue

Emeraid is formulated to have its protein content essentially pre-digested as free amino acids and small peptides, so the animal doesn’t have to put much metabolic work into digestion—it can just directly absorb the nutrients without having to break them down first. This diet is also designed to allow variability in how much fat is added. I contacted Dr. Lafeber and we arranged for a large shipment of the diet. We had a few days’ supply on hand, so began feeding it to the most emaciated birds right away. We fed Emeraid Piscivore at 11% fat, which was the percent fat I identified as optimal for common murres (Uria aalge) in my PhD work. Once transitioned onto Emeraid Piscivore, the birds stopped regurgitating and began doing much better.

Because we had several hundred birds that needed tube feeding many times a day, we had problems keeping up with making enough blended fish for all the birds. We decided to use the Emeraid Piscivore to round out our food supplies for all birds on tube feedings, not just the most critical cases. Emeraid Piscivore is very easy to make on demand in whatever volume is needed. It has a very fine texture and passes through feeding tubes easily. Of the approximately 6500 tube feedings these birds received in the first week of care prior to becoming reliable self-feeders, about half the total diet fed was Emeraid Piscivore.

International Bird Rescue San Francisco Bay Center pool full of surf scoter ducks
International Bird Rescue San Francisco Bay Center pool full of surf scoter ducks (Melanitta perspicillata)

All in all, Emeraid Piscivore served us very well in providing an easily-digested diet for the most critically emaciated birds, and helped us through a food supply crisis when we were having problems making less-expensive diet fast enough to feed hundreds of birds simultaneously. It was a great help in managing the care of the several hundred birds affected by this event and we will definitely use it again in the future.


Date:  July 30, 2015; timeline updated November 18, 2015

5 First Steps for Rescuing a Wild Animal

by Dani Nicolson, licensed wildlife rehabilitator
rescued baby birdHave you found an injured or ill wild animal? What do you do now? The following 5 steps are some of the most important YOU can take to help an animal survive! Now, before we get into them, it is important to stay calm, don’t frighten the animal any more than they are,  so that you or the animal will not be harmed when rescuing them. Some things to consider – is the animal in the middle of a busy road? If you rush to get the animal – will it run or fly into a passing vehicle? What is the animal’s defense mechanism that can hurt you? For example, talons on a raptor, sharp beak of a Heron or Egret, teeth and jaws of a coyote, or, legs of a deer. We already know this, but at times, in our rush to save an animal, we forget! The few minutes it takes to be prepared, usually won’t make a difference in saving that animal so be calm and safe. Some animals really don’t need our help. They are exhibiting normal behavior for their species, such as fledging songbirds on the ground in spring and summer! If you are not sure, skip to #5.

1) Carefully pick up the animal using gloves, towel, sweatshirt, etc. and place it in an appropriately sized container. This is sometimes a challenge, just do your best. I’ve returned home or to a nearby business to get a box. Small birds can be put in a paper sack with air holes. ALWAYS PUT A TISSUE OR CLOTH IN THE BOTTOM OF BAG OR BOX so the animal doesn’t slip and further injure itself. Close the top! Make sure there is adequate ventilation by poking holes in the box.
2) Keep the environment calm and quiet. Please resist the temptation to continually peek at the animal. Stress could push the animal over the edge and kill it. If you have children, please do not allow them to
hold the animal – it is dangerous for the children because animals
can carry disease that can injure humans, and, they could be injured by it.
3) Place the box or bag in a warm place. I always say “warmth is magic”
because it is one of the crucial steps you can take to revive an animal who
is injured or ill. You don’t want the animal to be HOT, just warm. You can
accomplish this by a) putting the bag or box in a heated room (apart from people
and pets) and/or b) putting a heating pad on LOW with a towel on top of the heating pad, then put half of the box or bag on the heating pad, so that if the animal gets too hot they can move away from the heat. If the animal is unconscious, it is best to AVOID THIS METHOD. If it is a HOT day – you may put the bag or box in a cool space or adda fan to cool the ambient temperature. Do not face the fan directly at the animal.

4)Do not give food or water! This is one of the most common mistakes people make. In our desire to help, we may actually hurt. Just know that after many years of rehabilitation by myself and others, that going without a meal or water for a short while isn’t going to make a difference in the animal’s survival.

5) Find and call a Wildlife Rehabilitator ASAP. Why? First of all, it’s the law.
Wildlife Rehabilitators are licensed trained professionals who deal with hundreds if not thousands of different species of wildlife a year. We attend conferences to learn best practices. We speak with other rehabilitators to learn from their successes (and failures). We work with Veterinarians, Fish and Wildlife Departments, Biologists, Falconers, Birders and many more who help us in our quest to provide the best attainable care for the animals we passionately give our
lives to help. Try to give them as much information about where you found the
animal, and any information that will help them determine the injury. For example,
was the bird below powerline? It could have been electrocuted.

Click here for help finding a Wildlife Rehabilitator. Lastly, thank you for taking time to read this. You may have just saved an animal’s life!

Lead Poisoned Turkey Vultures

by Dani Nicolson, licensed wildlife rehabilitator

A turkey vulture was seen hanging from a tree, in a neighborhood in downtown Paso Robles, California. January 9th marked the beginning of a string of lead poisoned birds that would arrive at the Wildlife Center from the same area, over the next two months. I’d heard of lead problems with condors, and old tales of “The Year of the Lead Poisoned Golden Eagles” (all suffered and died), but this was my first experience to treat this deadly poison. It all begins when a bird eats carrion that has been killed with lead bullets. Fragments of lead enter the stomach, leach into the blood, and eventually poison the animal’s bloodstream.

turkey vulture“Old Man” is what we called the first vulture. He was stooped over, weak, and hobbled; forced to stand on the tops of his feet, as his talons were curled into tight balls. He had no energy, no appetite, and no ability to resist human contact. We began treatment immediately, after learning that his blood levels were “off the charts”. Radiographs indicated many small and large fragments of lead in his gut and in his crop; and to add insult to injury, he had been shot several times, though none broke any of his bones.

The treatment for lead poisoning is very hard on the animal, since the poison passes through the kidneys, before exiting the body. But, within ten days, we began to see some improvement in “Old Man’s” attitude and digestion. Little by little his feet began to uncurl, and his stance became more upright. As recovery progressed, he was finally allowed outside, into a smaller flight cage. After a while, he was able to get himself off the ground, and hold onto a perch. He progressed to the larger 100 foot flight cage, enjoying clean food (compliments of the house), exercising his wings, and regaining strength daily, despite the need for further treatment. Later that month, a younger Turkey Vulture arrived, from the same area. “The Young One” was treated and progressed alongside “Old Man”, although he was not as debilitated at the outset. They kept each other company in the large flight cage, standing on the highest perch, with wings outstretched to the sun and wind, doing their exercise laps, receiving treatments, and relishing the meal-o-the-day.

These two were lucky – they survived and were released. Two more Turkey Vultures and a Golden Eagle suffered from the same fate, but died from the poison in their blood. It is a painful death, and the birds sometimes vocalize their pain. As rehabilitators, we suffer right alongside them. Tear stained faces are a common sight when one of our patients dies.

I just attended a lecture on lead poisoning in wildlife. It highlighted how many species of birds are susceptible to this man-made plight. Waterfowl and seabirds on the east coast have also been affected. Many birds may die without rehabilitators knowing the cause, since the test is not routinely performed in all rehabilitation facilities. Lead bullets are being banned in California; however, since the lead bullets are still available for target practice, and enforcement is always difficult, public education is important.

Please help us by telling everyone you know about this needless suffering and death of our native wildlife. It is 100% avoidable.

For more information visit


Eight and Zero or Folded Blanket: Rehabilitation of a Special Pelican

A Story of Survival and Discovery by Dani Nicolson, licensed wildlife rehabilitator

In 2010, our wildlife rehabilitation center on the Central Coast of California, began to receive an unusual number of brown pelicans. Not only was it an unusual number, but it was the wrong time of year and the wrong ages of birds. Normally we see many fledgling brown pelicans in July. They have left the islands of their birth and often run into trouble finding food in July. This was different. It was February and these were adult pelicans. They were starving, emaciated and cold. These beautiful birds had just been removed from the endangered species list, but now they desperately needed help.

For some of the birds, it was too late. Their body stores had been exhausted, and they died within hours. But for one bird, it wasn’t. He was known as Eight and Zero, but I called him “Folded Blanket”. You’ll learn why.

brown pelicanFolded Blanket arrived with his head lying flat on his back with no energy to stand or even move. I warmed him in an 80 degree room with heat directly underneath him. When his temperature reached nearly normal, I began his exam. His weight was low, but his blood levels were even lower. His PCV was 8 (normal for pelicans = 40-50), and his TP or TS was 0 (normal = 3-6). I knew from sad previous experience that this bird would surely die, but still I tried to save him. We had been using Emeraid Carnivore™ and had seen good results. I decided that this would be his best chance for survival.

He took gavaged fluids well, but as I tried to increase the percentage of Emeraid™ per tubing, he was unable to digest it. I decided to keep tubing him at the level that he could digest, which was mostly water. But how could he survive on mostly water?

The next day I arrived at the Center and immediately went to the room where he was housed, expecting to find him dead. To my amazement, when I peeked into his crate, he turned his eyes towards me. That day, I increased the percentage of Emeraid™ only slightly and by day three, the same. Until day four, there was no change. However, in the afternoon of the fourth day his head was up, and by the end of the day, he stood.

Now he could digest the Emeraid™ full strength and by day six, he began to eat fish. Every volunteer who knew him was as amazed as I. He not only lived but he began to thrive.

I said to myself, “What is this Emeraid™?” It felt like a miracle. We use Emeraid™ for all of our emaciated animals with similar success.

Still, there was no moment more beautiful to me than the day I released Folded Blanket at Windy Cove in Morro Bay. He flew strong and straight until he reached the open ocean. Then he turned south and was gone.

So why did I call him Folded Blanket? Considering how light and weak he was in those first few days, in my arms he felt like a folded blanket. I will always remember that bird, and I will always be thankful to the Lafeber Company for Emeraid™ Eight and Zero or Folded Blanket.

The Memorable Fall of 2011

by Dani Nicolson, licensed wildlife rehabilitator

As the long summer days grew shorter, I eagerly awaited the start of the fall baby squirrel season. The weather reports were suddenly filled with news of a hurricane. The track of Hurricane Irene was right up the east coast. This news spelled trouble for the baby squirrels and other babies that would soon be born. My volunteers and I started preparing for the distinct possibility that we would have more than our normal number of babies. We also faced the possibility of losing power. Supplies were stored and we waited for Irene.

The storm wasn’t even over before the hotline phone rang. A nest of baby squirrels was blown out of a tree and the mother was dead. Would I take them. Fortunately, we never lost power, but all the roads around us were impassible. It took a day to clear the downed trees from the driveway so we could even get to the road. Trees and power lines were down everywhere. It took hours to reach the pickup point where the family was waiting with the baby squirrels. Call after call came in, all with the same concerned voice on the other end of the line, “ I found some baby squirrels and I don’t know what to do”. A volunteer stayed at the pickup point all afternoon so people could give him the baby squirrels they had found so they could get the care they needed. Fifty babies came in that first afternoon. This continued for several days. Soon the nursery was packed with babies.

baby squirrels being rescuedIt is common for a percentage of babies to come in with problems, but these babies took that to a whole new level. Most were in bad shape with upper respiratory problems, pneumonia, Bordatella spp., and physical trauma ranging from head trauma to broken bones. Intensive care nutrition was need to turn them around. Exotic Emeraid was invaluable instead of formula. Energy levels rose within the first few feedings and little tummies had no constipation or diarrhea issues. Everyone was put on Emeraid feedings for at least the first two weeks. Many needed a little more time. This diet not only turned them around, but helped them thrive. A nursery full of large beautiful healthy sassy squirrels were later released.

Six weeks after Irene we had a rare October snow storm. There was terrible damage all around this area, especially to the oak trees because they still had their leaves. Almost every tree in the yard came down or lost most of their limbs. Power was out for 10 days. Some late babies came in, but most were juveniles. Again Emeraid helped us get these squirrels back on their feet so they could be released.

Spring 2012 baby season started early due to the very mild winter. Baby squirrels started coming in, but the numbers were down by 75% in areas where the tree damage from the October storm had been the worst. It is now time for the fall baby squirrels to come in once again, completing the circle. Here’s hoping for a better baby squirrel season this time around. I am always well stocked with Emeraid, just in case. The first fall infant squirrels just came in tonight, a month early.