How Oil Spills Affect Birds

And how you can help.

Bird with oil on its feathers

Ingrid Taylar / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Massive oil spills often make headlines because of their destructive impact on wildlife and the environment. What many people don't realize, however, is that even a small amount of oil, no more than a dime-sized drop, can be deadly to birds. Understanding how oil affects birds can raise awareness of just how hazardous any oil spill or similar pollution can be.


Large scale oil pollution disasters come from obvious sources: offshore drilling, tanker leaks, and illegal dumping. Yet small oil spills and leaks, such as a damaged jet ski, leaking motorboat, illegally dumped quarts of motor oil, or runoff from road pollution can be just as deadly to birds and other wildlife. Many of these small spills and slicks go unreported, often because only a small area, even just a few yards, is affected. Yet even the smallest spill can have a fatal impact on the birds that come into contact with it.

Birds Affected

The birds most affected by oil spills and petroleum contamination are those that spend the majority of their time at sea or near the water, such as gulls, ducks, pelicans, auks, grebes, penguins, terns, puffins, and loons. If the oil reaches the shore, however, all types of shorebirds may be affected, as well as migratory songbirds that use polluted habitats as critical migration stopovers. Birds that feed on polluted areas, such as fish-hunting eagles and ospreys, can also feel the disastrous effects of oil spills. In short, no bird species is entirely unaffected by this type of toxic pollution.

How Oil Affects Birds

The most obvious way oil affects birds is by coating their plumage in sticky, greasy slime. Birds' feathers are precisely aligned and designed to provide superb waterproofing and insulation. Oil in the feathers, however, will mat them and misalign the tiny barbs that keep the feathers properly positioned. Even a small misalignment can cause birds to lose critical body heat, therefore exposing them to temperatures and weather conditions that can be fatal. Oiled birds also lose their natural buoyancy from air pockets created by proper feather alignment, and they can sink and drown in polluted waters.

To remove the oil from their feathers, oiled birds will begin to preen excessively, even desperately. As they preen, they inadvertently ingest the toxic sludge, which will then poison their kidneys, liver, lungs, intestines, and other internal organs, causing a slow and agonizing death. If they do not die from the oil's toxicity, their excessive preening in a desperate attempt to realign their feathers and get clean again will cost them more energy than they can spare. Many oiled birds eventually succumb to exhaustion, dehydration, or starvation.

Additional Impacts

Oil has more impacts on birds than just coating their feathers. An area subjected to a large oil spill can become uninhabitable for the birds as food supplies are gradually killed off from the toxic poisons, and oil coating nesting areas destroy critical habitat. If birds are already nesting at the time of the pollution, oil that coats the eggs will suffocate unhatched chicks, decimating the birds' population. If eggs have not been laid but female adults ingest the oil, the pollution can cause thinner shells that are more subject to being crushed and may cause malformed chicks that will not survive. Over time, small amounts of oil in the birds' ecosystem can be absorbed into food supplies, gradually building to deadly concentrations in birds that eat that food, whether it is plant life, insects, fish, or other food sources.

How You Can Help

It can take years to clean up and restore areas impacted by oil spills and similar pollution, but there are many ways concerned birders can help, such as:

  • Volunteering with cleanup efforts and helping clean birds and affected habitats after a spill happens
  • Donating to organizations involved in cleanup either through financial or material contributions or organizing fundraising drives
  • Joining organizations and related causes to raise awareness and taking part in active campaigns to stop the causes of oil pollution
  • Avoiding unintentional contributions to pollution problems by keeping watercraft in peak condition without leaks and disposing of all oils properly
  • Reporting any oiled birds or contaminants to local authorities immediately to minimize pollution and begin restoration efforts
  • Working to live a greener lifestyle and use fewer petroleum resources, which will lessen the need for refined oil

Oil, even in small amounts, is deadly to birds and can have a lasting impact on a contaminated area's ecosystem and other wildlife. By understanding the severity of oil's effect on birds, it is possible to raise awareness for rescue and rehabilitation efforts and minimize the impact oil can have on all wildlife.