20 birds killed by mysterious substance in Alameda County

Byby Nick Smith via KGO logo
Monday, January 19, 2015
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At least 89 seabirds were rushed to the International Bird Rescue Center after they were affected by a mysterious substance from the water off Hayward, San Leandro, and Alameda.

FAIRFIELD, Calif. (KGO) -- A mysterious material is affecting hundreds of birds in Alameda County. Twenty have already died after their feathers became coated in the strange, sticky substance. While the state investigates, a non-profit is trying to save the birds.

There are limited resources to cover the cost of this massive operation. Since a cause has not been determined, government funding is not there. International Bird Rescue and a team of volunteers are working tirelessly to save one of our most precious natural resources.

"This should all be white. And this is what we're looking at, it's kind of crusty and hard." explained Michelle Bellizzi, with International Bird Rescue.

Bufflehead affected by the mystery substance.
Bufflehead affected by the mystery substance.
International Bird Rescue

Bellizz is referring to a grey, goopy gunk that's coating the birds' feathers and taking away their protective outer layer.

"Once you break that feather coat, you've got a hole in their down jacket and they get cold and these guys were wet all over," she said.

Surf Scoter affected by mystery substance.
Surf Scoter affected by mystery substance.
International Bird Rescue

Eighty-nine seabirds were rushed to the International Bird Rescue Center on Friday from the water off Hayward, San Leandro, and Alameda.

"Right now we have 89 birds in care, so far 109 total have been brought to the center, covered in goo, some unknown product," International Bird Rescue Executive Director Barbara Callahan said.

International Bird Rescue in Fairfield is working to save seabirds that are dying from a mysterious substance, Jan. 17, 2015.

Callahan says they still do not know what the substance is exactly, but they do know it is not petroleum, vegetable oil, or fish oil. She describes the mysterious substance as being similar to rubber cement.

They were swimming in the stuff, which then became embedded in their feathers. Twenty birds died of hypothermia.

The substance breaks down the birds' ability to protect themselves from hypothermia and prevent them from flying.

"It looks like, almost like rubber cement on the birds," Callahan said.

It takes two volunteers and 30 minutes to clean each contaminated bird. And they're using just basic household products like baking soda, vinegar, and Dawn dish soap.

ABC7 News viewers wrote in to the station asking if the substance responsible for sickening the birds could have come from a nearby manufacturing plant.

"The Coast Guard did a fly over and was not able to see any product on the water, so it's really still a mystery and may be a several more days of course with the holiday before we determine what exactly this product is," Callahan said.

In San Lorenzo, the mission to rescue even more injured birds like Surf Scoter continues.

"They're basically suffering needlessly. This is not a normal situation for them, so we're trying to mediate that human caused impact," oil spill responder Mark Russell said.

Scientist say they're continuing their testing and won't know more about the substance affecting, Surf Scoters, Buffleheads and Common Goldeneyes before Tuesday at the earliest and the cost for this non-government-funded operation continues to mount.

"It's likely to run in the tens of thousands of dollars to care for all of these animals," Callahan said.

The alternative is too gruesome to think about.

The dead birds will be shipped to a special fish and wildlife department lab where necropsies will be done to determine what killed them.

International Bird Rescue is paying for all emergency care costs at this time and is seeking public support. If you'd like to help, click here.