how do oil spills affect birds

According to Maggini, his coauthors and he were taken aback by how significantly such minute amounts of crude could affect flight mechanics. Although oil spills are obviously terrible for the environment, these findings provide new insight into how severe the effects are for wildlife.

“Feathers are the most important feature of a bird,” says the study’s lead author, Ivan Maggini, an ornithologist at the University of Western Ontario. They allow birds to jump off the ground and soar into the air, plunge at incredibly high speeds, and even shoot in and out of water. But these feats are only possible if a bird’s feathers are unencumbered.

Oil spills are bad for birds, as anyone who has ever seen a photo of a pelican covered in black crude can attest. Hypothermia results from the sludge clogging their feathers, which eliminates their capacity to ward off water and retain heat. Oil can cause seabirds to lose their buoyancy and essentially be dragged into a watery grave. Additionally, a sticky poison that ravages the livers, lungs, and intestines of the birds that attempt self-cleaning is consumed by them.

Some lucky ones, however, get away with just a few smudges. And yet, according to a new study published July 1 in the Journal of Experimental Biology, even small amounts of oil can create problems for a bird down the line.

In order to construct scrapes, or depressions used for nests, males in particular must arrive at the breeding grounds early. They must then guard these scrapes until the ladies arrive and select their favorite builders. Early males have been demonstrated to have higher reproductive success, according to Maggini.

However, the lungs are yet another route via which oil can enter a bird. Oil that has leaked interacts with the air, water, and waves, weathering and changing its chemical and physical characteristics. A portion of the oil may evaporate, and the murre floating on the water’s surface may inhale the ensuing harmful vapors, which could cause lung issues.

The male murre gets cold, his sensitive skin suddenly exposed to both the irritating effect of oil and the outside temperature. If he doesn’t straighten his feathers quickly, hypothermia might develop. The bird would struggle to stay afloat without this insulating structure, which also traps air and aids in the bird’s buoyancy on the water’s surface.

His lone, still-developing chick, barely three weeks old, jumps off the sheer cliff face into the ocean, maybe a thousand feet down to its waiting father below. There, the father murre takes care of the chicks nonstop while they travel out to sea, which requires a lot of energy even in the absence of the possibility of an oil spill.

Murres form enormous floating congregations on the water called “rafts,” which can contain up to 250,000 birds, resembling a bathtub full of rubber ducks. Actually, murres are at sea for the majority of the year—all but three or four months. A raft of murres may float directly into an oil spill, depending on where it travels. This possibility is particularly likely because murre habitat frequently overlaps with important shipping lanes.

While this population of seabirds certainly suffered from this oil spill (perhaps losing up to 40 percent of the population), murres began recovering within a few years of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Surprisingly resilient, this species is nonetheless one of the most studied seabirds [PDF] precisely because it is so often the victim of oil spills.


What happens when a bird is covered in oil?

When their feathers or fur are matted with oil they will no longer insulate them from the cold and they can die from hypothermia. The arrangement of overlapping feathers on the back of a seabird makes the bird waterproof.

How does oil affect birds and mammals?

OIL SPILLS can harm wildlife in a number of ways. The toxic effects of inhaling vapors and ingesting oil when grooming or feeding can make animals sick. Oil can also coat an animal’s fur or feathers, leading to hypothermia and a loss of buoyancy. Preventing spills is the best way to protect wildlife from oil spills.

What oil spill killed thousands of birds and other wildlife?

The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon well blowout vomited more than 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and onto its shores—the largest accidental, offshore oil spill in history. It killed wildlife, tainted fisheries, and damaged coastal ecosystems from marshes in Louisiana to beaches in Florida.