17 January at Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, we admitted a Western grebe who’d been found on Centerville beach near Ferndale. The deep puncture wounds on his flank and belly, as well as crushed bones in his wing, were too severe for treatment. While we greatly prefer to treat injured animals and release them back to their wild lives, to be able to humanely end the suffering of an animal too wounded to ever live freely again is also an important part of our mission.
Later that day another Western grebe, found several miles north at South Jetty, was brought to our clinic. This bird, with similar wounds, died on the way.
And so began a five day run in which 11 of these elegant seabirds with deep puncture wounds and occasionally with a crushed wing or leg, came to our small wildlife hospital on the Redwood coast. Many of the birds came from Crescent City, a few were found between here and there – Manila, Clam Beach, Trinidad.
This is somewhat unusual. Typically, when more than a few of one species of seabird are found struggling, the birds suffer from emaciation, a condition brought on from a lack of nutrition. For as long as seabirds have been observed, mass starvation events have occasionally happened. Such occurences are often called “wrecks.”
Nowadays, overfishing, climate change and host of other ocean ills cause these wrecks to occur more frequently. While there are many possible causes for this kind of starvation, the cure is relatively simple: stabilization (fluids and warmth) and food.
When emaciation isn’t the problem, the next most likely scenario to cause large numbes of seabirds to run into trouble is a toxin in the environment, such as petroleum spills, harmful algal blooms (often caused by agricultural “run-off”, sewage, fish waste.
The wounds we’ve seen look like predator bites. Our working hypothesis is that sea lions are hunting these birds for food, or what seems more likely is that these grebes were bitten while pursuing fish in the same school with sea lions. There is precedent for marine birds injured by Sea lions while foraging. Whatever the case, currently we have no direct observations or conclusive results.
Western Grebes are aquatic birds – they spend their entire lives on water. Even their nests are aquatic, built on floating vegetation anchored to reeds and other aquatic plants. Once they hatch, grebe babies ride on the backs of their parents and from then on they are either on water, under water in pursuit of fish, or in flight. For these birds to heal successfully they need to spend most of their time in care on water. Right now, providing that housing is the challenge we face.
Our facility in Bayside is small and most of our equipment is improvised or re-purposed. (For example, plastic 55 gallon drums house our homemade filters on our pools.) Your support provides the means for our skilled staff to build the infrastructure necesssary for the care of all wildlife that meets the specific needs of each animal.
If you are able to do so safely, toss a towel, sheet or jacket over the bird’s head to protect yourself from the sharp pointed bill. Western grebes have very long necks – hold the bird low, near your waist, at arm’s length. Your safety must come first.
Once you have the bird wrapped in a towel, or ideally in a box, you can transport her or him to our clinic.
If you are unable to do this, call us and we’ll try to help. (locally 822-8839 or our statewide hotline 888 975 8188.) As always, thank you for your support. Thank you for being a part of this life-saving work.