Every Bird Matters
news and views from international bird rescue

Archive for October 2011

October 27, 2011

Sweaters on oiled penguins?

Little Blue Penguin cared for during the Rena Spill in New Zealand, 2011. Photo: Curt Clumpner

Update, 3/6/14: Every so often, the “sweaters on oiled penguins” story resurfaces in the media. “Does this work?” invariably we’re asked about using knit sweaters to keep birds warm and to prevent the preening of oiled feathers. Here’s our answer from International Bird Rescue executive director Jay Holcomb in 2011, following the Rena Oil Spill in New Zealand that affected Little Blue Penguins. The bottom line: While cute, penguin sweaters may do more harm than good to oiled birds.


Many of you have probably seen articles about using specially fitted sweaters made specifically for oiled penguins. This concept has come to the forefront again because of the large number of Little Blue Penguins that have been oiled in the Rena spill in New Zealand. International Bird Rescue has worked on a number of spills with four species of penguins. Each time someone asks us why we are not putting sweaters on penguins. The answer is the same for any bird, but let’s focus on penguins right now.

The intent of the sweaters is to keep the birds warm and reduce the amount of oil that they might ingest when preening. When birds are oiled, they lose their natural ability to thermoregulate. That’s because the oil sticks birds’ down and contour feathers together, temporarily impairing the ability to use these feathers to maintain body temperature.

Additionally, there are many different types of oil, and many contain irritating and toxic components. It’s common to see skin burns and irritation on birds that have heavy oil on their feathers. The last thing we want to do is to put something over their feathers that causes the oil to be pressed against their skin, or impairs the evaporation of the aromatics put off by the oil. Penguins and other birds can also overheat very quickly, and the sweaters increase this risk.

To help the birds stay warm and limit the amount of preening, we only have to do one thing — house birds in a warm, ventilated area. When birds are warm, they reduce their preening because they’re comfortable. When they’re cold, they’re stimulated to preen in an attempt to correct the loss of body heat. Our research and experience over the course of hundreds of spills has shown us that when we keep them warm while they are still oiled, birds do well.

There’s also another hazard to the sweater concept: Any handling or wearing of anything foreign to them contributes to the penguins’ stress. Reducing stress is our biggest challenge in an oil spill. Sweaters can be cumbersome, and require a secure fit to ensure that the bird will not become entangled. When birds are kept in warm rooms without sweaters, their stress is reduced, because they do not need to be monitored or handled.

In the Treasure oil spill in 2000 in Cape Town, South Africa, International Bird Rescue worked with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to rehabilitate over 20,000 oiled African Penguins; we successfully released 95% of them. In every oil spill where we have cared for penguins, International Bird Rescue has had at least an 80% release rate, and none of these birds wore sweaters.

Our colleagues from around the world agree that penguin sweaters are adorable and offer an avenue for concerned people to contribute, but they are not considered a useful tool for the rehabilitation of oiled birds, primarily penguins.

Jay Holcomb
Executive Director
International Bird Rescue


Photo right: One of the penguins being cared for at the wildlife rehabilitation facility set up at Tauranga. Image credit: Maritime New Zealand

October 24, 2011

Oiled Wildlife Response is a Team Sport

Little Blue Penguin on haulout in recovery pool at Rena New Zealand oil spill

Our latest update on the Rena Spill is brought to you by International Bird Rescue’s Preparedness Director, Curt Clumpner, who is on site in New Zealand working with Massey University in the role of Wildlife Center Deputy.

For those of you who don’t pay much attention to rugby “we” won the Rugby World Cup Sunday night. Much of the wildlife team watched it on one of the big screens in the hotel lobby. The wildlife team’s Kiwis and Americans all stood and sang the New Zealand national anthem (the Americans really only hummed) and cheered and groaned through a very close game, 8-7 New Zealand over France. The All-Blacks perform a ‘Haka’ at midfield facing the opposing team just before the start of each game. The ‘Haka’ is a traditional Maori war dance/challenge meant to intimidate the opponent. It is hard to describe but involves fierce faces, stomping and tongue wagging and in most cases it would cause tears in small children. It was a very exciting game even if we (the Americans) did not understand the rules very well. International Bird Rescue’s Barbara Callahan was waving her All-Blacks flag. Kerri Morgan from Massey University was pacing nervously and every so often someone in the room would yell a somewhat plaintive “come on boys”. In the end though “we” prevailed and there was much joy and relief. In my section of the hotel the neighbors were celebrating long into the night. At the wildlife center next morning there were more than a few people who seem to have developed a World Cup “flu” and it was Labor Day holiday, but we still had a good crew who got on with it.

One of the great things about going on international responses is the chance to work with different species. In this case we are working mostly with Little Blue Penguins, which I worked with 16 years ago during the Iron Baron spill in Australia, but also diving petrels, pied shags, and occasionally white-fronted terns, fluttering petrels and New Zealand Dotterels. In oiled wildlife care the principles pretty much hold true across species but the details may be different and learning the details and applying them correctly is always an interesting puzzle to work out.

It makes it much easier when the team contains members with a depth of local knowledge and experience with the species and that is one of the things that is great about the team that Maritime New Zealand and Massey University has put together. Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) (pronounced em-en-zed in this part of the world) contracts with the vet school at Massey University in Palmerston North much the same way California’s wildlife system is built around the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis. OWCN’s Director Dr Mike Ziccardi is also here as part of the team, stepping in wherever needed from seals to dirty birds to the Incident Control Center. They have a National Response Team here that trains yearly.

Oiled Wildlife Center in New Zealand.

For New Zealand the good news/bad news is that there has not been a spill that has impacted large numbers of animals – the Rena has been called the worst environmental disaster in New Zealand history – so their one weakness is that there is not a lot of real world spill experience on the team. This is why they asked International Bird Rescue to help. We have had a strong relationship with the New Zealand program for a number of years, networking, exchanging information, collaborating on workshops at conferences and, during the Prestige spill response in Spain, bringing in Massey’s then team leader Richard Norman as part of our wildlife team to gain some real world international response experience. Two years ago I was also invited to participate as one of the instructors for yearly oiled wildlife core team training at Massey University and so already knew many of the wonderful team we are working with now.

Curt Clumpner
Preparedness Director
International Bird Rescue

Stay tuned for more updates from our team in New Zealand in the coming days

M/V Rena Live Wildlife Data as of October 24, 2011
Oiled Live Little Blue Penguins 107
Un-oiled Live Little Blue Penguins 186
NZ Dotterel 60
Pied Shag 3
White-Fronted Tern 1
Grand Total Live At Facility 357
October 19, 2011

MV Rena Spill: International Bird Rescue Assisting with New Zealand’s Worst Environmental Disaster in Decades

Examining an Endangered Dotterel - Photo by Mike Short

Dear Friends,

Last week International Bird Rescue was activated to respond to an oil spill in New Zealand after the 775 ft (236 m) cargo ship, MV Rena, ran aground on a charted reef off the North Island port of Tauranga. Fuel oil leaking from the ship has caused New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster in decades and many oiled birds have been recovered, both dead and alive.

After the initial release of over 300 metric tons of oil from the Rena, attempts to pump the remaining oil off the ship have been difficult, as this process has to be timed in between storms. Additionally, many cargo containers from the ship have fallen into the ocean and are littering the beaches.

International Bird Rescue’s Emergency Response Team has been working with Massey University, Wildlife Health Center, and many other wildlife responders under the Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) National Contingency Plan to assist oiled wildlife from the Rena spill.

There are currently 273 live birds in care, including Little Blue Penguins, Pied Shags, a Kingfisher, a Fluttering Shearwater, a White-fronted Tern and New Zealand Dotterels.

The NZ Dotterels, large shorebirds, have been of particular interest, as biologists believe that there are fewer than 1,700 of this species left in the world and 100 are known to live along the coast of the Bay of Plenty. The National Contingency Plan specifically dictates that they are of the highest conservation value, and a plan to preemptively capture up to 60 was put in place. If there is further catastrophic release of oil, these birds will be safe, and can be returned to their nesting habitat once it is clean.

Additionally, the Department of Conservation field teams have been running night operations to collect any Little Blue Penguins (also known as Fairy Penguins) that are oiled on their nightly trips back to their burrows. These Penguins use the same paths consistently, so the field teams are able to locate and evaluate the birds for any oiling.

The International Bird Rescue team has been fully integrated with the Maritime New Zealand National Wildlife Response Team at the Wildlife Center, and is helping feed, clean and condition birds, while helping with volunteer management and facility support.

We will continue to update you on our efforts in helping New Zealand operate the oiled bird rehabilitation center.

Jay Holcomb
Director Emeritus
International Bird Rescue

Pied Shags in Pool - Photo by Mike Short

Live Birds In Care: 273

  • 207 Little Blue Penguins
  • 3 Pied Shags  (1 un-oiled)
  • 1 Kingfisher
  • 1 Fluttering Shearwater
  • 1 White-fronted tern
  • 60 NZ Dotterels (56 un-oiled/4 oiled)

Dead Birds Collected: 1290

Other Dead Animals Collected: 4

International Bird Rescue Emergency Response Team Members On Site in New Zealand:

  • Barbara Callahan, Wildlife Coordinator
  • Curt Clumpner, Wildlife Center Deputy
  • Julie Skoglund, Rehabilitation Specialist
  • Deirdre Goodfriend, Rehabilitation Specialist
  • Michelle Bellizzi, Rehabilitation Specialist
  • Susan Kavaggia, Rehabilitation Specialist


October 12, 2011

International Bird Rescue to Support Wildlife Response Efforts in New Zealand Following Tauranga Oil Spill

Rena losing containers as heavy swells wash her deck on the starboard side. Image credit: Maritime New Zealand

Rena losing containers as heavy swells wash her deck on the starboard side. Image credit: Maritime New Zealand

Oiled wildlife specialists from International Bird Rescue and California’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) have been deployed to New Zealand following a request for support by Massey University’s Oiled Wildlife Response Team. Massey’s Wildlife Health Center is assisting Maritime New Zealand and the Department of Conservation with the rescue and rehabilitation of any birds or other wildlife affected by the oil spill from the cargo ship MV Rena.

To date, six of International Bird Rescue’s experienced oiled wildlife responders have been activated as well as the Director of California’s Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), Dr. Michael Ziccardi. International Bird Rescue and OWCN staff will be working collaboratively with the team of veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitators from Massey University, led by wildlife veterinarians Kerri Morgan and Helen McConnell. More than 50 birds have already been retrieved and the number of oiled animals is expected to escalate in coming days as oil continues to wash ashore.

For more information on the wildlife response click here: