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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 208R - The Bird Rescue of 1971 (Repodcast)

52 years ago, a tanker collision spilled oil around the Golden Gate. Woody and David speak with Susan McCarthy who took part in the subsequent bird rescue.
by Nicole Meldahl - Jan 21, 2023

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 208R - The Bird Rescue of 1971 (Repodcast) Outside Lands Podcast Episode 208R - The Bird Rescue of 1971 (Repodcast)


Podcast Transcription

208R - The Bird Rescue of 1971 (Repodcast)

Nicole: [00:00:00] The following is a classic episode of Outside Lands San Francisco. Dates mentioned in this week's podcast pertained to past events only.

Woody: It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I’m David Gallagher.

Woody: David!

David: Yes, Woody.

Woody: We have a guest.

David: Yay. Oh wait, with our kids already cheered for our guest, already cheered for us. Kids cheer for our guest. Susan McCarthy.

Susan: Hi there. Thank you.

Woody: Yeah. The, the kids like you, you don't even know who they are, but, but they're the kids like you, Susan. We, we were, David and I were talking, we had, we did a podcast last week about the Human Be-In. and I gotta say, we did a terrible job. Don't you think?

David: I, well…

Woody: David?

David: Yeah. I, I think you and I did.

Woody: Yeah.

David: But our guests were awesome.

Woody: Right. So, we thought…

David: We've even gotten some feedback on it saying that it's one of the best podcasts we've had, [00:01:00] so.

Woody: Right. So, I think guests are the way to go, especially erudite and well informed, which is unlike us.

David: Yes.

Woody: And also, we were talking a lot about the times, and I think we might have been a little flippant about the Human Be-In and the counterculture.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But one thing that I think we, which I feel bad about, but one thing that we did kind of hit on, is the sort of change in the way people look at the natural world and preserving it and ecology and all that came out of that era. And so, when we were thinking about that, that David and I, we said…

David: Right.

Woody: Isn't this also the anniversary of something that happened at Ocean Beach that was like, it seemed to me a big ecological movement or a moment for San Francisco. And so, I thought we could get you in, and I asked David if it would be okay if you would come in, to talk about the bird rescue that happened in 1971.

Susan: Yeah.

Woody: And if you say no now, then this whole podcast is ruined.

Susan: Well.

David: We should say that the, so there was a bird rescue in, in 1970, [00:02:00] January of 1971 because two oil tankers hit each other in the mouth of the bay.

Woody: Right.

David: And the oil was spilled all up and down the coast, down Ocean Beach and then up north to Marin County. And some went into the bay, went onto Angel Island and everything. And this spurred a giant grassroots sort of cleanup and rescue of birds.

Woody: Right. And Susan wrote an article about that for us on the website. And I, I guess I wanna know, how did you get involved in this?

Susan: Well, I was 15 and listening to the radio along with my mother, KSFO, KSAN, I guess was the…

Woody: Oh, KSAN, yeah.

Susan: Was the big radio station. Basically, there was absolutely no preparation for an oil spill and definitely not for rescuing birds that had been oiled. And so, it happened, you know, on a weekend. People were terribly upset. They went to their usual [00:03:00] beaches and saw this nasty stuff washing up and nobody was doing anything about it. They found oiled birds on the beach. They didn't know what to do. They called all these different organizations who were like, be careful, it could bite you. Don't touch them. There were no government agencies that had any plan, so people just went out and did it themselves. And KSAN was one of a few radio stations that took it on themselves to organize people. And they had people calling in and going, “I'm here at Stinson Beach and we need hay to soak up the oil,” and you know, “I'm here at Pillar Point,” “I'm here at Baker Beach and we need this, we need that.” And I was like, yeah, let's do this and I couldn't drive. My mother took me and some friends and we built some plywood pens to house birds in, and then I heard that they were washing birds at the San Francisco Zoo.

Woody: So, go back to a second. [00:04:00] I think it's gonna be surprising to a lot of people, especially younger than us, that there was no sort of concerted government agency cleanup or response to this. Even outside of the birds, just like cleaning up the oil on the beach.

Susan: No, there really wasn't. Yeah. I mean there were school kids, you know, people of all ages going out and dumping hay on the beaches to soak up oil. And the two tankers were the Oregon Standard and the Arizona Standard, belonged to Standard Oil and Standard Oil, sort of slowly got into gear and said, okay, we're gonna hire people to do this. In fact, they signed up a bunch of day laborers from out in the East Bay or out in the Valley. And by the time they got there, there were so many volunteers out on the beach that Standard Oil said, well, we don't need you anyway.

Woody: Great, problem solved, including 15-year-olds who came. And so. I think when, the thing that I thought was interesting, [00:05:00] in your article that you wrote for us about this event, was the different types of people who were inspired to go and attack this crisis. I mean, you talked about how in the newspapers then they were all talking about hippies. It was this term and they were talking about, oh, crazy hippies are going to eat your children. And oh, but no hippies are attached to the universal consciousness of the world, and they just couldn't get their minds around hippies. But hippies were showing up, but also, where people were calling hard hats.

Susan: That's right. There was this huge dichotomy portrayed in the newspaper between hippies and hard hats. But as always happens in any public response, people who work side by side bond with each other and start saying nice things about each other. And I, you know, a 15-year-old with long hair, I definitely fell into the hippie category, but there were lots of school kids of every variety. The, and you know, once everybody is like wearing giant plastic bags over their clothes to keep oil off, everyone looks the same.

Woody: They’re all the same. Yeah. [00:06:00]

David: We do have a couple of pictures on the website that we got from Dennis O'Rorke with actually a guy in a…

Woody: Hard hat.

David: Hard hat, a construction guy standing there amongst all the soaked up hay bales and things.

Woody: Yeah. So, you, you went at first and you guys made your own pen and you were just out there, untrained volunteers, trying to help these birds.

Susan: That's right.

Woody: And then somebody directed you to a more concerted effort that was at the zoo?

Susan: That's right. Gradually they developed these centers for washing birds and that first there were dozens and they gradually moved them, consolidated them. And there was a big one at the zoo. It was in the basement of the Lion House. And the lions, the lions are up there roaring. You know, I didn't know the Lion House had a basement. It kind of smelled like lions and meat and lion poop. And the lions are roaring overhead and it smells like oil. And there are all these tubs of water. And I walk in and someone says, have you handled birds? [00:07:00] And I said, yes. Which was more or less true. I had raised a duck, Madeline. So, you know, I knew how to handle them and, you know, not to hold them up and gaze into their eyes and stuff like that.

But at that time, the technology for washing birds was incredibly primitive. We were going on rumor. What did they do in Santa Barbara? What did they do at Torrey Canyon? We were doing things that I'm really sad to think about now. We were slathering them with mineral oil, which, you know, a company, a pharmacy donated mineral oil. We were rubbing cornmeal into their feathers to soak up the oil. And it was really unfortunate. It wasn't good technique. And out of that, or out of that effort, an organization was formed, International Bird Research and Rescue, which is now just called International Bird Rescue. It's 45-years-old now. And what we know about how to wash a bird is so much better. So much better than [00:08:00] then.

Woody: Right. Well, I think that's what's interesting now is that, you know, after Exxon Valdez, and you know, the, all these other oil, oil spills and that…

David: Deep Water Horizon.

Woody: Yeah. All these sort of…

David: Disasters.

Woody: Right. It's like we're used to seeing in the news these disasters and then everybody comes up with a response and that there's all these organizations that know what they're doing. We think. And go out there and can not only clean the beaches and clean the water, but try to save as much marine life and bird life and that, but, but back then, you guys were all just kind of working off rumor and what you had heard worked before, right?

Susan: Right.

Woody: Yeah.

Susan: And if you like read about Torrey Canyon, they were going, oh, mascara remover is great. I'm like, what?

Woody: Mascara remover?

Susan: What, mascara remover?

Woody: They give you a little brush to do it too? Yeah.

Susan: No. And at that time nobody knew that detergent would be a good thing, cause that sounded like such a horrible thing to do.

Woody: Right. Right. And then I think also what I thought was interesting, David, is that in the [00:09:00] article, Susan talks about one of the bird rescue sites was at the site of the Family Dog.

David: Right.

Woody: Which, you know…

David: Which is Ocean Beach Pavilion, right there at Balboa and, and Great Highway.

Woody: Yeah. Which is a building that was, back from the 1880s, and I can't tell you how many different things happened in that building, over the…

David: Right.

Woody: 90 years that it was around. But the bird rescue was one of the things I didn't know had happened.

David: In January 1971, it only had a year left to exist.

Woody: Right.

David: So, it was one of the last major things that happened there.

Woody: Right. So, I guess volunteers showing up, people of different backgrounds. This sort of concerted effort to try to save birds. This got good press. People like this?

Susan: It got great press. Yeah. People really loved it. And the, the newspapers were full of, you know, I said a pharmacy donated mineral oil. Granny Goose. the factory donated potato chips. You know, a pizza chain donated pizza. You know, lots of people….

David: Does that suck away the oil from the…

Susan: No, [00:10:00] no. That, that, that keeps the volunteers going. And there was this anonymous guy who was quoted as saying, you know, he fell in the category of hippie and he said, oh, the chicks bought, brought pots of rice. It was great.

Woody: Pots of rice.

David: Well, what's interesting to me when you talk about bringing this effort up from nothing with nobody had any idea what to do. I mean, and, and it set the stage for this sort of rescue, a big organization, International Bird Rescue reminds me of the of the efforts, the relief efforts after the 1906 earthquake, where there was no idea of how to house all the refugees and anything.

Woody: Right.

David: And San Francisco created a, a program that was then kind of cloned for, for disasters.

Woody: Yeah.

David: To come.

Woody: Yeah. Well, I mean, that's where you learn, right? But you don't like, I guess now everybody tries to train and prepare for things and then something happens and they realize they're not prepared. But it's in these sort of situations that things get discovered and people figure out what works. How [00:11:00] long did this actually last? How long? This oil spill cleanup going on. I mean, was it a week?

Susan: No, it was, it was a couple of weeks and…

Woody: Yeah.

Susan: Gradually all the birds got moved over to a paper warehouse in the East Bay. And I'm sad to say that not that many birds survived. Because not only did people not know how to get oil off of them, they didn't know how to take care of some of these birds that spend their entire life at sea and never, you know, they, they build their nests maybe on floating vegetation and you can't just plunk them down on the ground and expect them to survive very long.

Woody: Right. And what kind of birds are we talking about?

Susan: I'm, specifically right now I was thinking about the Western grieves, which are these beautiful birds with long, skinny necks and crazy red eyes. At the time I thought their eyes were red cause they'd been through an oil spill. But, no, they have bright red eyes even on a good day.

Woody: Yeah.

David: You see those pretty commonly around the bay today, right?

Susan: That's right. Lots of common murres. Which, at that time, we didn't know how to get them to eat. Quite a few [00:12:00] loons.

David: That surprises me. I didn't, I did not know there were any loons around here. And loon is a bird that doesn't ever spend any time on land, I don't think, right?

Susan: That's right. And these birds that don't spend time on land, they, they're not very good at walking on land. Loons are very hard to keep. But yeah, there were, there were a few loons, I rubbed cornmeal into a loon. Which was the first time in my life I was a bird watcher. But it was, I was beginning to be a bird watcher. It was the first loon I'd ever seen.

David: Yeah.

Susan: Lots of scoters. And scoters, there's three species around here and they are rather tough birds and they are better survivors than some of the other birds we treated.

Woody: And did this, I, I'm not sure, you know, you said you were 15. Were you interested in the natural world or animals at the time? You had a duck, I guess. And, or did this get you into this?

Susan: Oh, I was already, a long-established interest in the natural world. And it was interesting, in the ‘80s there was an oil spill off the [00:13:00] coast, the Apex Houston spill. And there was a response that I participated in briefly. And already people knew so much more, so much more about what they were doing, and so many more birds survived. The Costco Busan spill, just a few years ago, was very similar in where it happened and the fact that it happened over a weekend and people wanted to volunteer. But this time, if you didn't have training, you didn't get to volunteer. And a lot of people were very frustrated.

Woody: Right.

Susan: Because they wanted to help.

Woody: Right. So, the good thing about all these volunteers coming out, you know, the feel-good aspect. The sort of surge of people wanting to help and all being the same, but doing something good together. The downside of it, they're amateurs, right? And they don't know how to take care of an oiled bird or a, you know, and help 'em survive. So, now we're much better at that. I mean, we have people who are trained and are ready to go.

Susan: Yeah. A lot of people.

Woody: Including, yeah, go ahead.

David: How do you learn, how do you get experience at, [00:14:00] you volunteer now that the organizations exist so you can volunteer there and, and get trained so that you're ready when another disaster happens, I guess?

Susan: Yeah. You can get pre-training. You can volunteer at one of these organizations and get specific oil spill response training. I had a friend who really, really wanted to volunteer at Costco Busan, but she had no wildlife response experience, so she went to the kitchen where they made food for the human volunteers and started making sandwiches.

Woody: Right. So, I, I want to talk about, you're still doing this, right?

Susan: That's right.

Woody: Yeah. So, this was like the start of whatever, 40 years of you rescuing birds.

Susan: Oh, off and on.

Woody: Yeah.

Susan: Off and on.

Woody: Yeah. And did you feel like, at the time while you were there, did you feel like this was gonna be the start of something you were going to be doing forever or, you know, off and on? Or was it like, I'm gonna go back to school and that'll be it?

Susan: Oh, I was in high school. I, I, didn't occur to me, I didn't realize how [00:15:00] perpetual oil spills are.

Woody: Right. You thought this was a one-time big disaster.

Susan: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah.

Susan: And every oil spill is different. The most recent one that I took part in was the mystery goo oil spill. Which, because it…

David: Right.

Susan: It wasn't oil, meant that it didn't come under a whole lot of state laws. And so, a whole different set of rules applied.

Woody: And is the government better prepared now for these sort of things?

Susan: Yes, absolutely.

Woody: Yeah.

Susan: California has really good laws for oil spill response. A lot of which came into being after the Exxon Valdez up in Alaska. And California recently filled a loophole that said that, that basically there's a tax on oil coming into the state by ships and it didn't cover oil coming in by pipeline or train. And those, those, those, those reproduced spills too, so…

Woody: Right.

Susan: That's been fixed.

Woody: Yeah. And just for, I mean, I know we're amateurs, we're not gonna go out and try to do this, but what [00:16:00] does work well on cleaning a bird? I mean, you talked about corn flakes and you talked about mascara remover, and those are not things, but I'm just curious, what is the actual technique that seems to work the best?

Susan: The best technique is diluted detergent. The famous one that they use is Dawn. And this was established by tests done by International Bird Rescue, but I know rescue centers where they use other brands, like Seventh Generation for example, and it works just fine.

Woody: Huh?

David: So, dish, dish soap?

Woody: Dish soap.

David: Liquid dish…

Susan: Dish soap.

David: Yeah.

Susan: You gotta use quite warm water because birds have got a higher body temperature than human beings and they get chilled really readily, especially when their waterproofing is messed up. So, you wash them, you rinse them, because detergent is just as bad as oil at keeping the birds from being waterproof. You dry them. We thought back in 1971 that washing birds got rid of their natural oils and that we couldn't release them until their [00:17:00] natural oils were back in their plumage again. Turns out that's completely wrong. If you have a bird with good plumage and it's clean, it doesn't need those natural oils. Because the natural oils are great stuff, and what they are is they're more like conditioner than waterproofing. And so, the bird will produce those all the time, but it doesn't have to have its feathers covered with a natural oil.

Woody: Right.

Susan: Before you release them.

Woody: Right. So, for this particular event that happened in 1971 in January, what is the great legacy out of this? Is it the formation of the International Bird Rescue, would you say? Or is there any great legacy that, that lessons learned? Better laws. better response. Is there anything that came outta this one, Ocean Beach and other areas spill, that you can point to?

Susan: Yeah, I think the creation of the organization that's now called International Bird Rescue and the research that they subsequently did. A lot of lessons were learned there. In the U.S., there are two [00:18:00] big oil spill responses organizations. There's Bird Rescue on the West Coast and there's Tri-State Bird Rescue on the East Coast, which was, came a little bit later and was triggered by their own horrible oil spills. But they, both of these organizations go internationally and help in other countries where there are oil spills.

David: That's terrific. I bet we have a lot of listeners who remember this oil spill. I mean, I was just a kid, but I do remember it. I remember it being on the news and all that we did. I didn't go out and help, but I think, I think that my older brothers and my sister went out and helped clean up the beaches, that sort of thing. But I'll bet a lot of people listening right now have memories of it. So, you should send those in to us.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And we can include them in a future podcast.

Susan: Oh, that would be super interesting.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And we also have a message board on our website. Which is not a bad place to.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Put those sort of memories. Cause people can kind of have a conversation back and forth. But I think you're right David. I think this is one of those events that people may have forgotten. [00:19:00]

David: Right.

Woody: That was such a big deal to them then. And now it's going to bring it all back. And we'd love to hear people who participated, like Susan, and kind of hear more about that. Because I think it, it's a story that a lot of people who are younger than us for sure don't know.

David: Right.

Woody: And so, it'd be nice to kind of get more information, more, more memories about it out there.

David: And we have Susan's great article on the website.

Woody: Yep.

David: What is that website, Woody?

Woody: It is outsidelands.org. We also have photos there, like you said, from Dennis O'Rorke of the cleanup. And that's also on that website. And what else is on that website, David?

David: Well Susan, you may not know this.

Susan: No.

David: But you can become a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project on our website.

Susan: Oh.

David: You go to the top of any page where it says Become a Member. You click that link and you can fill in your information. Send us a likely tax deductible donation, and you will get the satisfaction of being a member of our organization.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And helping us to tell stories like [00:20:00] this.

Susan: Yeah. I think this is really a little forgotten chapter of San Francisco history, and it's super cool that you're illuminating it.

Woody: Well, you illuminated it. We're just like giving you a, a taller soapbox.

David: Normally I do more Ed McMahon kind of laughs, but this one wasn't all that funny.

Woody: It's important anyway, David. You can't laugh through everything.

David: Yes, you're right, Woody.

Woody: But thank you so much Susan for joining us on the podcast, and thank you, David for joining us now.

David: Thank you, Woody, for having us as guests.

Woody: Thank you.

David: We'll have to get Susan back in again on something else.

Woody: I'm sure she knows more about something.

Susan: I'll make something up.

Woody: Yeah. Okay. That's all we need. That's all we need. Thanks again, and I'll see you next week, David.

David: All right. Woody.

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Woody: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history, go to [00:21:00] outsidelands.org.

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