Oil-Soaked Birds Freeze to Death in Water, Bake to Death on Land: Audubon Bird Expert

oil-soaked pelicans photo

photo: International Bird Rescue Center via flickr

The impact of the BP oil spill on birds seems to be in the spotlight today... The American Bird Conservancy released a map of bird habitat threatened by oil and Yale e360 has a good interview with Melanie Driscoll of the National Audubon Society's Louisiana Coastal Initiative in which she makes the important point that while oil-soaked birds on the coast are vivid examples of the ongoing devastation, even more damage is likely occurring out of sight and offshore:

It's hard to paint a picture because most of the toll is unseen. We've all seen the pictures of oiled pelicans and gulls. But most of the wildlife that are affected are just disappearing. We've only had 350 or so birds brought alive to the rescue [center] in Louisiana and yet many, many more must have been affected and just are not being rescued because they are not coming up from the oil.

Of course most of the oil is still in the water column and the largest toll is probably loss of fish and shrimp and crab. I spoke with a fisheries biologist who said that he fears that we could lose an entire generation of fish from this.

Driscoll also gives a thorough run-down of all the ways birds can die from exposure to oil:

Birds that are farther out that fly into oil, many of those birds actually dive -- gannets, frigate birds, sanderlings. Pelicans dive down into the water to catch their fish. You end up with additional effects besides just the oiling on the feathers. If the bird goes through the oil and the feathers get heavily oiled, the bird may be unable to take off and fly to get back to land to be rescued. But additionally, diving birds are diving through oil to catch fish that may be in oil, and those birds are very likely to ingest oil and that can cause kidney and liver failure. There are other internal toxic effects. So birds may die from the toxicity of the oil that they've ingested. If they come up and they are unable to fly away, because their feathers are coated, birds lose the ability to thermo-regulate or to maintain their own body temperature. If they're in the water, even if it's warm, they die of hypothermia -- they freeze to death. If a bird makes it back to land and it's very hot, birds can effectively bake. They can't lower their body temperature -- the feathers are the big insulating factor for birds. And impacting them with oil can cause the birds to either overheat or freeze.

Read more: A Louisiana Bird Expert Assess Damage from the Spill
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More on the BP Oil Spill:
Map of Bird Habitats Threatened by BP Oil Spill
First Birds Rescued from Gulf Oil Released in Florida
Less Than 1% of Oil-Soaked Birds Survive

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