Written by Marie Travers & January Bill of Bird AllyX

Bird Ally X is a group of experienced wildlife caregivers dedicated to rescue, rehabilitation, education and advocacy. Since 2018, the nonprofit organization has partnered with the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge along with Focus Wildlife to provide emergency rehabilitation during botulism outbreaks. The first year we cared for 494 birds; last year it was 233. But just like so much of life in 2020, this year’s outbreak was unprecedented in scope and scale, epic in both volume and complexity. 

Long-time refuge staff say it was the worst botulism event at KBNWR in decades, with an estimated 40,000-plus birds perishing due to heat, drought and lack of water on the refuge.

On July 15th, 2020 Focus Wildlife and Bird Ally X set up the field hospital. The following day, the first two avian botulism infected birds were delivered to the hospital, a full month earlier than in previous years. Area wildfires restricted bird collection, allowing the disease to spread unchecked at the beginning of the response. Once search and collection was in full force in early August, the number of birds coming in skyrocketed, averaging 75 birds a day. One day we received 179 birds. Over the next 75 days, a total of 3,179 waterbirds were admitted and treated, a 544% increase in patients from 2019. Of the birds surviving the first 24 hours, 78% were released. Because of the continuous influx of unprecedented numbers of impacted birds, the hospital was in constant state of expansion and modification.

COVID made the response much more complicated. Our plan was to keep our bubble as small as possible by hiring interns rather than relying wholly on volunteers. As a staff of two, we knew it would be a long haul to October and we had to stay healthy. With one intern at the outset, we hired another after a few weeks and several more in the following weeks. We also had a few incredibly dedicated volunteers who have worked every botulism response with us—they drove from the Bay Area and paid for their own food and lodging to join the effort. A few local volunteers helped at the hospital, cleaning, doing laundry and data entry. The small but mighty team consisted of two to nine people working each day. The work hours were incredible, totaling 4,698 hours in all. By comparison, during the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, 400 volunteers cared for 1,100 birds.

Soon we had hundreds of ducks and shorebirds at the MASH hospital to care for, and released birds on a daily basis to make room for the new ones arriving each afternoon. Our days ran together and were the same, resembling “Groundhog Day:” feed birds, clean, swim birds, move birds, dry birds, intake birds, release evaluations. Each new day also threw us some kind of crazy curveball.

Just like so many hospitals treating coronavirus patients, our MASH hospital reached maximum capacity. With so many birds coming in, we spent nights fundraising to buy additional enclosures and pay for the interns now desperately needed. These funds were essential to expanding the capacity of care and treatment for the botulism response. Donations and grant funds were used to purchase and build additional enclosures (including conditioning pools and predator-proof permanent enclosures) as well as rehabilitation treatment equipment and supplies. Donations were also critical in helping pay stipends for interns, whose help was vital at this time.

Miraculously, every single time we asked for help, we got it. Organizations and individuals stepped up in ways we could never have imagined. People offered up pools and affordable intern housing options. Volunteers sponsored intern stipends and paid for vital equipment. And several nonprofits—including Friends of Malheur NWR, Mt. Diablo Audubon and so many other awesome organizations—made significant donations that saved birds and our sanity. It was truly inspiring.

Going above and beyond

Friends of Malheur Refuge was one organization critical in supporting our ability to expand our treatment and care capacity.  As the number of birds brought to the hospital began to reach critical capacity, Friends of Malheur Refuge offered help by providing a grant of $9,260 to hire more interns and help with equipment and supplies.  A special thank you to all of the Friends of Malheur Refuge whose donations were critical to this life saving work. We are also grateful to other organizations and individuals who made our work possible including:

Klamath Basin Audubon Society
East Cascades Audubon Society
Mount Diablo Audubon Society
Willapa Hills Audubon Soviety
CAL ORE Wetlands and Waterfowl Council
Cal Waterfowl members
Robert G. Kirby Fund of Oregon Community Foundation
Black Brant Group Inc.
Bird Ally X members

The 2020 Avian Botulism Rehabilitation Team:
Laundry Team:  Fran McDermott, Molly Russell, Polly Ganong-Strahan
Interns:  Kaile Edenhofer, Jenna Farmer, Christine Impara, Molly Joyce, Erin Linton, Gage Mazet, Lindsey Sampson
Volunteer bird bander: Elizabeth Huggins
Volunteer responders: Marguerita Scannell, Nancy & Jerry Mix, Lloyd & Mattie Bill, Peg Devero, Geanie Flanigan, Rusty Rosenberg
Volunteer wildlife rehabilitator: Elissa Blair

2020 Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex Botulism Rehabilitation Response Affiliated Award

The two wildlife rehabilitators managing the response, Marie Travers and January Bill, received the California Council for Wildlife Rehabilitators Award of Excellence for going above and beyond in the field of wildlife rehabilitation for their 2020 Avian Botulism response management.

We hope you enjoy this photo gallery of the Avian Botulism Response at Klamath Basin NWR Complex in 2020.