Gulf Oil Spill Threatens Breeding and Migrating Birds

American Bird Conservancy Map


We all watched with horror as the oil rig accident took the lives of eleven workers of the Deepwater Horizon rig and injured more. The still uncapped oil spill is growing and heading on a path of devastation through precious Gulf of Mexico fisheries and towards coastal wildlife sanctuaries. There are many people, communities and wildlife species that will not recover from this blow. One group of species that is likely to be hit at a particularly sensitive time are the birds of the region who are breeding on the shores and in the coastal marshes and estuaries or making critical feeding and rest stopovers during their migration north.  Oil gets on their feathers and into their bodies, it kills the aquatic species and insects upon which they feed, and it poisons their nesting grounds.

It is evening as I write and I looked up the current status of the spill today nearly two weeks after the accident.  Reuters reports that BP indicates “some progress” toward capping the mile deep underwater well. Hmmm, “some progress” sounds to me as though the oil is still gushing out.  Reuters also reports that as of this evening the slick is at least 130 miles by 70 miles or about the size of the state of Delaware.  It reports that BP expects the capping operation to take two to three months to complete.  In the meantime, the daily leak estimates (thought to be on the low side) are at 5,000 barrels per day.

At the moment, key wildlife sanctuaries and breeding ground along the coastline and waters of four states are threatened by the oil – most immediately Louisiana, but Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are also at risk. The Gulf coastal waters, marshes and estuaries are a rich feeding and breeding ground for all types of sea, air and land creatures. The spreading oil threatens "Important Bird Areas," sites identified by Audubon and other conservation experts as vital to the health or even the survival of entire species.

For example, around 3,400 Brown Pelicans – the state bird of Louisiana - are currently nesting and laying eggs on the Chandeleur Islands in Breton National Wildlife Refuge. The Brown Pelican was just removed from the federal endangered species list last fall. It is to be hoped that this does not cause it to go back on the list. The Gulfport area has one of the country’s largest nesting colonies of the endangered Least Tern –locals report that you can hear the whistling and chirping of the several thousand birds nesting on the beach right now. If the oil comes on the beach and hits the eggs, the birds and their young will likely die be lost. The oil also threatens their food supply: if the fish disappear, the birds will starve. As with most birds, the Least Tern is at its most vulnerable now during the breeding season. The eggs are laid on the beach and it takes 20 days for them to hatch and 20 days for the chicks to be ready to leave the nest. The only ducks that breed along the Gulf Coast are the Mottled Ducks (known as “summer ducks” locally). They feed and nest in coastal salt marshes. Other local birds likely to be harmed by the oil as it approaches the coast include Royal Terns, the endangered Snowy Plover, Laughing Gulls, the Reddish Egret, Seaside Sparrows, and the Louisiana Heron. Rescue efforts are being planned throughout the region and those interested n volunteering can find a list of agencies here.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that, despite assurances from oil companies, exploratory drilling is dangerous. Instead of going after these forms of fossil fuels that we used to think too difficult to access, we should be focused on clean forms of energy that do not have this same terrible risk in terms of loss of lives, livelihoods and wildlife. We deserve better. The wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico deserves better. And our birds deserve better.

For larger map, go to American Bird Conservancy site here.