2014 PFIG Recipient Sarah Hooper

Career Administrator

Sarah Hooper
College of Arts & Sciences
Biology & Music
2015 Graduation Year

Internship: International Bird Rescue in San Pedro, CA.

Notes on the first week

It is only the first week and I am having such a great time already! On May 19th I began an internship with International Bird Rescue (IBR), a nonprofit organization specializing in medical care, rehabilitation and release of injured, orphaned and oiled aquatic birds.  I became interested in learning more about aquatic bird rehabilitation after seeing how the requirements for aquatic bird rehabilitation and care differed from other wild birds during my internship last summer at the California Wildlife Center. While the California Wildlife Center accepted aquatic birds as intakes, aquatic birds were transferred to International Bird Rescue after several days. Therefore, the scope of care I observed for aquatic species last summer was very minimal. I am so excited to intern at International Bird Rescue this summer to learn about what goes into long term aquatic bird rehabilitation from an organization that specializes in the field.

IBR has two main operating facilities, one in San Pedro California and one in the San Francisco Bay area. Both facilities rehabilitate numerous aquatic bird species year-round and are also equipped to respond to large-scale oil spills.  The facility in San Pedro (where I am an intern) consists of a front and back clinic area, an animal kitchen, oiled bird washing area, multiple indoor enclosures and a number of outdoor aviaries and pools.

The day usually starts in the animal kitchen where large boxes of frozen fish are set out in the sink to thaw in running cold water. Most of the birds at IBR eat either night smelt or sardines. While night smelt have less nutritional value than sardines, they are a less oily fish. Birds in the diving bird pools require night smelt as their diet because the oil from sardines can contaminate the pool water and affect their feather waterproofing.  Other birds such as pelicans that are larger in size and are housed in aviaries can eat the larger and oilier sardines. Some birds also eat krill, bloodworms or mealworms in addition to these fish. Birds in less stable condition are either tube fed saltwater or fish slurry, which is also prepared in the kitchen. I participated in diet preparation and feeding for a variety of birds during my first week.

In addition to diet preparation, I have been learning a lot about handling aquatic birds. While there are some similarities to other wild bird handling, the handling requirements for aquatic birds are somewhat specialized. For example, the legs and feet of grebes must be tucked and held close to their body or they can sustain injury from kicking their feet back. Black crowned night herons can easily dislocate their toes so it is important to be particularly careful when picking them up off of their perches for medical evaluation. Herons in general feel most comfortable when they have something to grab onto with their feet so they require an arm or hand to grasp onto when held. I’ve been able to practice restraining numerous types of birds for medical evaluations and routine pilling or tubing. So far, my personal favorite experience has been holding a young great blue heron. Feeling its giant lanky toes grasp my arm for stability was really cool!

I have learned so much this first week and I really enjoy working with the aquatic birds, staff and volunteers. Many of the birds rehabilitating in the clinic are not found on the east coast so I have been able to learn about a variety of new species. In addition, many of the birds are currently in their breeding plumage (due to the time of year) so they are beautifully colored which has been interesting to observe.  It is my hope that by the end of my internship I will: 1) be able to better identify birds that come into the clinic that are not found in Virginia, 2) learn more about bird anatomy, 3) understand what different drugs are used for in treating patients, 4) better understand how treatment plans are formed for patients at IBR, and 5) attend a release.


Wow, five weeks has passed so quickly! I cannot believe that my internship at International Bird Rescue is halfway over already. Over the past several weeks I have enjoyed learning more about aquatic birds, their species-specific needs and how a specialty wildlife hospital runs. I have become comfortable with restraint, capture, administering medications, tubing and diets for multiple different species as well as crucial facility maintenance tasks such as pool siphoning. While I have learned so much in these past five weeks, new opportunities and different cases present themselves regularly, which is exciting since there is always more to learn. In this post I’ll cover several highlights of my experience so far including: rounds, bird washing, and shadowing the vet.

One of the most rewarding parts of this internship, in my opinion, has been following specific patients throughout their rehabilitation. Every morning the staff and interns come together for rounds. Just like in a human hospital, rounds are the time when every patient is reviewed and any changes or modifications to their treatment plan are discussed (along with the plan of action for the current day). Participating in rounds has been such a valuable learning experience. Through rounds and daily treatments, I have become familiar with each of the many birds in care and their different medical issues. I have also been able to learn about common injuries and medical terminology. It has been so interesting to be able to follow specific birds through their treatment process and observe both their progress and setbacks. Several days ago I helped release a gull that came in shortly after I started my internship. I remember restraining the gull for its initial examination where one fishing hook was found pierced through its maxilla and into its nare and another into its foot with potential bone exposure. The hooks were removed and after several weeks of care for its injuries at IBR, the gull was ready to be released back into the wild. It was so wonderful to be able to see the rehab process from beginning to end with this gull. I have likewise enjoyed following other birds through treatment.

In addition to helping with animal care, I have also had the opportunity to help wash birds covered in contaminants over the past few weeks. Contaminants including crude oil, vegetable oil or other substances found in a bird’s environment can cause serious complications if left untreated. For example, birds covered in crude oil often sustain burns from the oil. Many contaminants also affect a bird’s waterproofing and ability to thermoregulate while in water. As such, these contaminants must be removed in order for a bird to thrive in the wild. Thus far, I have restrained a great blue heron for a wash to remove a tar-like substance on the tip of its wing. I have also held a pelican initially found covered in vegetable oil for its second wash. Both experiences have been very interesting. Washes must be performed quickly but thoroughly so the bird does not become too stressed during the process. In addition, every person participating in the wash must wear personal protective equipment because the contaminants are often harmful to people too.

Last week I was also able to observe the staff veterinarian in surgery. While I learned a lot from the entire experience, my favorite procedure I observed was wing pinning. Pinning of bones serves the purpose of stabilizing otherwise unstable fractures. I saw pinned wings both this summer and last but always wondered how the pins were placed and what the surgery involved. Last week I was able to see the surgery and my lingering questions about the procedure were answered through observation. It was so interesting to be able to understand how pinning was performed after seeing pinned wings, mandibles and other bones throughout my internship.

While a few of the many interesting experiences I have had in my first five weeks are highlighted above, the list is far from complete. Every day brings new learning experiences, intakes, and interesting developments in each patient’s progress. I absolutely love the work that I am doing and am happy to report that I have made progress on my goals. I have now attended and participated in releases of pelicans, a gull, snowy egrets, green herons and eared grebes (In my spare time I drew pictures of the first two species I helped release-a juvenile pelican and an eared grebe—see images attached to this post). In addition, I am becoming more familiar with common bird species, bird anatomy, treatment plans and common drugs used to treat certain medical issues. The staff have also been very helpful in providing resources and books to reference to learn more about these areas. Overall, this experience has further reinforced my plan to attend veterinary school and has opened my eyes to the potential of working with a nonprofit. I can’t wait to see what additional new experiences will arise during the remainder of my time as an intern at IBR!

Final Reflections

On Sunday, I completed my internship at International Bird Rescue by performing routine exams of multiple baby gulls. These last five weeks presented a multitude of new opportunities including a glimpse into oil spill response, a transfer of multiple baby gulls, more veterinarian shadowing and lots of interesting patients and patient care.  Although my internship has now ended, the knowledge, skills and memories of this wonderful experience will stay with me. I can’t wait to apply what I have learned during this internship in my studies at UVA and as a veterinary student in the future.

Over the course of my internship, IBR received several oiled birds. Most of the patients were only partially oiled or had some other problem that initially brought them into the clinic.  Once healthy, these birds were washed to rid them of the contaminant. One morning however, news of a small-scale oil spill was received. It was very interesting to see the role that IBR played in the spill clean-up. People often realize the negative effects that oil spills have on the environment. However, it is also important to realize that wildlife is negatively impacted during oil spills. Whether the oil directly invades an animal’s habitat, thereby contaminating them, or a bird lands in the oil thinking it is a body of water, these cases must be addressed and cleaned quickly. IBR has the resources and knowledge to clean all types of oiled wildlife, including mammals. Luckily, the spill that occurred was very small. Staff went and monitored the area for oiled wildlife and hung reflective mylar ribbon to deter birds from landing in contaminated areas.  Although I was unable to observe or help at the actual site of the spill, because a special hazardous area training is required, it was interesting to be in the clinic waiting to see if any oiled wildlife would arrive needing to be cleaned. I also learned some interesting facts from the experience such as the fact that IBR always has a surplus of fish in the freezer to be ready at moment’s notice for large-scale oil spill events.

Another opportunity arose two days before the end of my internship when International Bird Rescue received a transfer of 30 baby gulls from another wildlife organization in the area. This influx of patients made for an unexpected number of exams and intakes at the conclusion of my internship. When the gulls arrived at the center, each bird was enclosed in a single animal carrier. It was really exciting to see 30 boxes on the floor and know that every bird would soon be receiving care at the facility. I was also excited to help perform thorough intake exams on the gulls which included taking each birds temperature, drawing blood, banding, feeling bones for deformities or breaks, rating body condition, and assessing the birds overall condition (looking over body and limbs for wounds or other abnormalities). Having 30 baby gulls in care also presented some interesting challenges. Baby gulls are especially susceptible to becoming habituated and will associate food with humans unless precautionary measures are taken. Habituation is also very difficult to reverse, so from the beginning, the gulls were cornered behind a towel during each feeding to provide a visual barrier between the birds and humans.

Towards the end of my internship, I had the opportunity to observe the vet again. This time I watched her perform toe amputations on an adult gull. It was interesting to watch the vet perform cautery of the webbing and see the type of foot wraps needed after surgery. Watching surgeries and looking at x-rays were also very helpful in reviewing and learning more anatomy.

In reflecting back on my internship with IBR, I had a wonderful time. I am happy to report that several of my skills have improved significantly including drawing blood from birds and my ability to talk about a bird in anatomically correct terms. I also became more and more familiar with common drug names and their uses over the course of my internship by pulling up and administering medications daily. I feel that I was able to meet all of the goals stated in my first post and the staff was also very willing to help me achieve those goals. While my favorite patients remain pelicans, I was also able to work with a number of unusual species during my internship at IBR. For example, one of the most beautiful birds that IBR received was a vibrant male surf scoter—a sea-dwelling relative of the duck. I was able to work with fulmars—a type of tube-nosed seabird that has a distinct smell, as well as many diving birds including western grebes that have a fan of feathers on the top of their head and red eyes. I am sad to leave these beautiful patients and helpful staff, but I know that this experience has only strengthened my wish to attend veterinary school and work with animals as a career in the future.

I’d like to conclude this post with a note of thanks. Thank you to everyone—the staff, volunteers, and fellow interns at IBR. I had a great experience this summer and learned so much! I’d also like to thank the Parents Committee at UVA for their generosity and willingness to make wonderful opportunities like this possible!