Gulf spill threatens Great Lakes birds

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The oil spill could halt a slow recovery of the Great Lakes piping plover, but it will take time to fully understand the spill’s impacts on migratory birds. Photo: auburnxc

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has many Great Lakes experts worrying about migratory birds making the trip home. But they say it’s too early to tell the fate of birds wintering in the Gulf.

Minnesota’s state bird – the common loon – and the endangered piping plover are among many Great Lakes species that ride out the winter months along the southern coast.

Although many have left for home already, some birds may still be in the region, where toxic oil is threatening habitats and food sources.

Experts aren’t sure what will happen to them.

“I think it’s the non-lethal effect of the spill that will be the most difficult for us to assess,” said Jack Dingledine, a piping plover recovery program coordinator with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The oil spill’s immediate impacts are clear – hundreds of the agency’s members are rehabilitating birds coated in thick oil, Dingledine said. But it will take years of monitoring bird populations to understand the full impact of the spill.


Minnesota’s state bird winters in the Gulf region. Common loons too young to fly home may be affected by the oil spill. Photo: Minnesota DNR

Minnesota’s common loon population, the largest in the lower 48 states, winters along the southern coast from November until late April and early May, according to migration dates from a state bird group.

That’s around the same time when the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded and started leaking oil.

Baby loons stay in the Gulf until they’re old enough to make the flight, said Pam Perry, a nongame wildlife expert for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

There are loons there now, and they may be affected by the spill, she said.

Once toxic oil coats birds’ feathers, they can’t swim or dive.

“They become hypothermic,” Perry said.

Oil can also contaminate the food chain. Birds that get sick from contaminated food aren’t able to migrate, Perry said.

“If they’re sick or contaminated, they aren’t coming back. They won’t be able to make the flight,” she said.

Click to enlarge. Map: American Bird Conservancy

The American Bird Conservancy, a national non-profit organization, released a list of 10 sites most threatened by the oil spill, including wildlife refuges, parks and an Air Force base, along the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

Minnesota’s common loon is found in every location, according to the conservancy.

“We don’t know how it’s going to affect Minnesota loons. But we certainly are concerned; it’s our state bird,” Perry said. “This is really an important species for Minnesota.”

The department will continue to track the bird’s population through a state-monitoring program, she said.



Experts are also worried about the impact of the oil spill on the Great Lakes piping plover, a small, critically endangered shorebird that winters along the southern coast.

Last year, there were 71 breeding pairs in the population, Dingledine said.

The recovery program coordinator isn’t sure how the spill will affect bird numbers or migration. But its small population makes it a top concern, he said.

Bird experts are worried about the affect of toxic oil on critically low populations of piping plovers. Click to enlarge. Graph: Michigan DNRE

The agency has a bird-banding program that allows scientists around the country track the migration of the plover, which is known to winter in areas affected by the spill, Dingledine said.

Some birds stick to the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.

“We’re still hopeful that those birds will not be affected,” he said.

The banding system will come in handy when the agency conducts studies on birds affected by the oil spill, Dingledine said.

In addition to extensive studies on how birds survive the spill, the agency will look at how food resources are contaminated and develop a protocol for testing levels of exposure in bird blood, he said.

Check out the American Bird Conservancy’s map of globally important bird areas and which ones are affected by the oil spill.

14 thoughts on “Gulf spill threatens Great Lakes birds

  1. Pingback: Gulf Spill Threatens Great Lakes Birds « Earth Environment Underground

  2. It is said that BP will be assessed fines partially based on dead animal counts. Who will do the counting and more importantly how will small dead birds be found, not to forget the billions of organisms that make up the food chain? It is sheer stupidity! How much value will be placed on each critter? How much value will be placed on the last of it’s kind?

    If you read the New York Times online, there is a very pointed article telling the abysmal history of BP’s misadventures in oil production and refining. They have been assessed nearly $100 million in fines in recent years in this country alone, yet they are allowed to continue plundering our resouces. I wonder if they have even paid those fines, or have our benevolent bureaucrats at Minerals Management Service just let BP run a tab.

    We should seize all BP assets in this country, continue to operate them, and use the profits to pay for the economic dislocations in the Gulf and pay for the environmental cleanup as long as it takes. Do this before BP seeks bankruptcy protection. Also bring criminal charges against all BP executives and involved MMS inspectors for the deaths of the oil rig 11, and crimes against Nature.

  3. I don’t know what this means for the loons or plovers, but I live 265 miles north of the Mississippi gulf coast and 5 Canada geese with signs of oily feathers landed behind my house this morning and have not left yet. They have spent most of the time trying to clean themselves. Interestingly, a blue heron and great egret have come in the area to watch. It is sad to see this moving northward.

  4. Pingback: Wisconsin wildlife news grab bag | Great Lakes Echo

  5. Thanks Kay, you are obviously a concerned, discerning person. Where and when I was growing up, we were held responsible for our childhood indiscretions by authorities and then again by our parents. Later, in the service, responsibility was thrust upon the individual and results were expected. Now-a-days, shirking of responsibility and passing the buck is the norm with little or no accountability. Likely, BP executives will get off the hook and some guy at the bottom of the ladder will take the fall, if anyone does.

  6. Paul is right. The government needs to pursue criminal charges against everyone involved in this disaster and to hold all BP executives personally liable. This was no accident. BP has dozens of safety violations on other sites and in this case, they ignored warning signal after warning signal that would have made any rational person stop drilling.

    Unless BP is held fully responsible, there will be nothing to stop the next company from placing its profits over the health and well being of everyone else.

    As voters, we need to make sure we oust every politician who is preventing BP and its executives from taking responsibility for their actions.

  7. It sounds like the sick birds won’t fly back, so the possibility of them spreading diseases when they return is pretty remote. Plus, humans catch diseases through domesticated birds and most domesticated birds in the U.S. are raised in conditions that isolate them from contact with wild birds.

  8. I think you are missing my point. I do agree with all of the concerns regarding the environment and our wildlife. But I am also concerned that when we sicken our migratory bird population, there could be a direct threat to human life, due to their ability to widely spread disease in a rapid fashion. Spanish flue was the best example of this. But who knows what other diseases are now percolating in the gulf of Mexico.

  9. Pingback: Oil and the Great Lakes: Two Stories « Kaufman's Gull

  10. Yes, what is happening now in the Gulf is just the tip of a very filthy, oily catastrophe. Just wait till all the shorebirds and waterfowl that are up north migrate to the Gulf Coast this fall. The death toll of birds will jump by several times that occurring now. We can expect several threatened species to be pushed closer to extinction by the hand of Man. We must bring criminal charges against BP executives and MMS inspectors for the deaths of the oil rig 11 and crimes against Nature. Corporations that deal in industries that have the capacity to commit wholesale slaughter of the environment must be put on notice that when they f–k up on whatever scale they will be held criminally liable. BP’s management must be held personally liable for fostering a don’t give a sh-t culture towards the environment. This was no accident, it was a series of technical shortcuts and commission of faulty procedures to save a few bucks. The loss to the natural world of the Gulf is beyond our capacity to rehabilitate, in our lifetimes.

  11. Is anyone concerned that this year’s migratory birds might become sick when the over-winter in the gulf and then spread diseases to the Great Lakes when they return next spring?

  12. This story provides all the more reason for those of us in Michigan to support improved/restored/secure habitat for the piping plover, especially along our Lake Michigan shoreline.

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