Oil Spill Impact on Birds

By Gail Condrick

This article was first published in the Summer, 2010 edition of Natural Awakenings Pet.

This spring a major Save Our Seabirds (SOS) activity is caring for rescued baby birds as predators or human error have caused nests to be abandoned. It is a full time operation as the birds need to be cared for 24/7 for their survival. This is a normal and busy spring activity and takes many SOS resources, a challenge as many volunteers have left for the summer.

But this is not an ordinary May. SOS Executive Director Lee Fox, who authored a manual used internationally on caring for oiled wildlife, is on call to assist the Breakwater Horizon oil spill protection effort. Staff and volunteers are collecting supplies and donations and fielding media calls in addition to daily duties. SOS will also lead the response along the Gulf Coast. The disaster, while tragic, shows the importance of the role of organizations like SOS in assisting with environmental changes and disasters.

At the height of the migratory and nesting season, the spill has created dramatic danger to birds along the Gulf Coast and the entire ecosystem. The Louisiana wetlands are home to many migrating and nesting birds and over 400 other species. As part of an intricate food chain, what affects one, impacts the whole.

“The terrible loss of 11 workers may be just the beginning of this tragedy as the oil slick spreads toward sensitive coastal areas vital to birds and marine life and to all the communities that depend on them,” said Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the Louisiana Coastal Initiative. “For birds, the timing could not be worse; they are breeding, nesting and especially vulnerable in many of the places where the oil could come ashore,” she said. “The efforts to stop the oil before it reaches shore are heroic, but may not be enough. We have to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, including a true catastrophe for birds.”

The International Bird Rescue Research Center states a dime-size glob of oil can kill a bird. As birds are coated with oil or ingest plankton or other ocean life that have oil in their bodies, the danger continues as baby birds are also fed the poison.

Birds familiar to Gulf Coast natives and visitors are at risk. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) says that gulls, pelicans and other water birds can experience hypothermia when oil destroys the insulating quality of their feathers. The birds eat more to stay warm, but their ability to forage changes as they sink lower and lower into the water, their buoyancy decreased by oil. The birds desperately groom their feathers with their bills, consuming oil, which may lead to illness and death.

Less obvious long-term impacts can occur. The entire food chain, from plankton to fish eating birds, may be disrupted by the presence of oil. Toxic chemicals may accumulate in birds’ bodies, weakening them and making them more prone to disease and predation. If oiled birds don’t die from exposure, there is evidence that reproduction is lowered by exposure to even small quantities of residual oil according to NWF.

Lower birth rates are a concern as many of the seabirds seen on our beaches are already at risk. Brown pelicans, the state bird of Louisiana, nest on barrier islands and feed near shore. Late spring is breeding season and many pairs are already incubating eggs. The species was taken off the federal endangered species list last year, but their relatively low reproductive rate means any disruption to their breeding cycle could have serious effects on the population.

Least Terns, whose low numbers are also a concern in Florida, are in danger. Alison Sharpe, director of the Louisiana Wildlife Care and Rescue Center, Inc., says, "The spill has the great potential of wiping out the entire population of Least Terns along our coast area.”

Least Terns were once plentiful on the shores of Mississippi. At one time, 12,000 of the species lived there but now only 2,000 terns remain. According to CBS News wildlife expert Jeff Corwin, “It only takes about 20 days for the eggs of the Least Terns to hatch and another 20 days for the chicks to leave the nest, which means right now is the most critical period in the life cycle of these birds, when they’re most vulnerable.”

Other species of beach nesting birds common to the coast such as gulls, shorebirds, large wading birds, marsh birds and ocean-dwelling birds are also at risk, along with migratory shorebirds and songbirds. Compounding the problem is the number of migratory birds seeking shelter in early May, some 500 million estimated in a 1998 study by Louisiana State University.

“The journey across 500 miles of open water strains their endurance to its limits,” the Initiative said. “They depend on clear skies and healthy habitats on both sides of the Gulf in order to survive the journey.”

Tidal currents, wind, and fate will determine if the oil comes ashore on the Gulf coast or is carried by currents into the Everglades or Atlantic Ocean. No one knows the entire impact of the Breakwater Horizon oil spill, but one fact is certain: SOS will play a role in protecting and rescuing wildlife and will continue to need assistance, both volunteer and financial to assist in the effort.

Information in this article was compiled from various local and national news reports, including Save Our Seabirds, Sarasota Herald Tribune, CNN, CBS News, L. A. Times, and reports from wildlife organizations. For the latest information or to contribute or volunteer with SOS, contact saveourseabirds.org.

Copyright © Gail Condrick, 2010

Gail Condrick is a writer and lover of all things earth and ocean living in Sarasota, Florida. Write to Gail