Gulf Spill Still Threatens Millions of Migrating Birds

Despite the BP Gulf spill cap, millions of migrating birds this fall, and for years to come, may face oil threats—starvation in particular. Video.

Up to a billion migrating birds stop over in the Gulf of Mexico region on their annual treks southward. Despite BP's capping of the Deepwater Horizon leak, scientists say the birds may face ill effects from the Gulf oil spill for years to come.

With the potential collapse of Gulf food webs, one scientist says, starvation "will be the biggest problem in the long term, I think."

© 2010 National Geographic; videographer and field producer: Fritz Faerber



Birds are some of the most visible victims of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of affected birds—both live and dead—have been recovered on or near beaches like this one on West Ship Island, Mississippi.

Some are obviously oiled —others, like this laughing gull—must await a necropsy to see if oil is to blame for its death.

Soundbite: Greg Butcher, Director, Bird Conservation, National Audubon Society: “Unfortunately, most of the birds that die are never seen by humans, and so the total is still untold.”

Around 1500 oiled birds have been rescued so far from across the Gulf region. Of those, volunteers have successfully cleaned and released around 500 animals.

But some experts worry after-effects of the spill could claim other winged victims that will be visiting the gulf region on their annual migrations.

Soundbite: Greg Butcher, Director, Bird Conservation, National Audubon Society:

“The gulf coast is really the center of a Western Hemisphere migration system. And so we calculate that probably a billion birds will fly by the Gulf of Mexico this fall.”

The migration of hundreds of millions of birds began in July, and continues through December. Some birds will spend the winter here, while others are on their way to points farther south.

Soundbite: Greg Butcher, Director, Bird Conservation, National Audubon Society:

“One of the birds that’s coming down is the piping plover and that’s definitely an endangered species—a bird we’re very concerned about. And it patrols the edge of the beaches. So right at the high tide, where the oil comes in.

“There’s a lot of other birds, some birds we call common birds in decline. They’re not really endangered, or they’re not on any threatened species list, but they’re in decline. There’s a lot of other stresses on bird populations. And adding an oil spill is just adding insult to injury.”

“So the early migrants are sandpipers and plovers. There’s birds like semi-palmated sandpiper, western sandpiper, greater yellow legs, lesser yellow legs, there’s 20 different species and more of sandpipers. And these are birds that are feeding in sand flats and mud flats, and so very exposed to this oil.”

“As the season moves on, we switch over and some of the earliest ducks arrive, like the blue winged teal. It’s a marsh bird so it’s going to be in those marshes, many of which are very heavily oiled. And as the Fall goes on, some of the other ducks come in. And lesser scaup is a duck that is really common in the Gulf, and it is going to try and dive in the waters that are oiled to try and find food at the bottom of the Gulf near the beaches and marshes.”

The gulf wetlands and shores offer vital habitat for birds that winter in the region. And the area is a bountiful stopping point with forage for birds flying much farther south.

And Butcher says there’s another, less obvious problem with this oil spill.

Soundbite: Greg Butcher, Director, Bird Conservation, National Audubon Society: “What we worry about in this oil spill, is so much of that oil has been dispersed, and really sent to the bottom of the Gulf, and we fear the impact on the whole web of life in the Gulf. People love the web of life of the Gulf because it produces the fish and the shrimp and the oysters that we love to eat. In the same way, that’s what the birds are eating. But if this web of life is destroyed by the oil that’s sunk to the bottom of the Gulf, then there’ll be birds without enough food to eat.”

Louisiana, arguably the state hardest-hit by this spill is home to about 40% of the country’s wetlands. A favorite bird habitat is Grand Isle, Louisiana, where state department of wildlife and fisheries officials are keeping a watch.

Soundbite: Michael Carloss, Biologist, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: “The biggest worry is the amount of oil out there, and where it may end up. When these birds come here to feed and utilize that habitat and the resources they depend on for food, how is that going to translate into contamination through ingestion or direct exposure.”

Carloss has spent most of his life in louisiana’s prime habitat and he worries it may be a slow recovery.

Soundbite: Michael Carloss, Biologist, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: “How long will these impacts be around? A lot of people compare it to Exxon Valdez. Over 20 years, they can still find impacts. Although this is a different system: warmer, more open water, hopefully we won’t have those same impacts for a long period of time.”

So government and private groups are working to restore habitat – from short term flooding of fallow farmland. To longer term projects like - rebuilding barrier islands, replanting forage and– restoring natural flow and sedimentation from rivers.

Soundbite: Michael Carloss, Biologist, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: “If you build it, they will come… kind of thing. It can be that simple. It doesn’t mean they’re all going to come, and it doesn’t mean you can stop all of them from going where they want to go along the Louisiana and Gulf Coast. But you can probably reduce those impacts by providing them additional habitat.

Experts will be watching closely throughout the coming years, to track the oil’s impact and try to help both local and migratory birds.

Thumbnail Photo Credit: James Galletto, My Shot