The effects of last month’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion, killing 11 people, is on track to surpass the devastation of 1989’s Exxon Valdez oil spill as the country’s worst man-made environmental disaster. The shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile wetlands tend to result in stagnant tidal action, potentially creating a perfect storm of coastal destruction as the massive slick comes ashore, coating everything in its path. A host of bird species native to the region are under direct threat.
It is peak migration season for millions of birds heading through impacted areas, and breeding season for the year-round signature coastal birds – pelicans, egrets, ducks, and terns, among numerous others. They have everything to lose if the oil slick reaches them. When oil starts mixing in water, it can change composition and transform into “mousse,” a sticky substance that clings to anything it makes contact with. The gooey matter mats and separates the feathers, subjecting the birds to hypothermia, and it prevents their feathers from repelling water. Oil also weighs down the bird, hindering its ability to fly. They swallow the oil – often ingesting significant quantities – while preening their feathers, and this leads to lung and liver damage and eventually, death.
Some effects of crude oil on coastal birds include:
- Hypothermia and drowning
- Poison from ingesting oil
- Damage to the airways
- Damage to immune systems
- Interruption of breeding and contamination of breeding grounds
- Thinner egg shells, causing deformities
If the oil spill reaches shore, the only hope for saving these coastal birds is quick human intervention, but that hope is slim. A study conducted of post-release survival and dispersal of cleaned and rehabilitated California brown pelicans following two Southern California oil spills in the 1990s concluded that regardless of the efforts, the brown pelicans suffered long-term injury, and that treating the birds do not guarantee further breeding or survivability.
The health of the environment reflects the health of the birds that thrive – or not – in their natural habitats. Their health or decline will eventually mirror our own.