Birds—from ducks and herons to terns and the brown pelican (Louisiana’s state bird)—are becoming the latest victims of the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf Coast. 

“It’s a full moon, a high tide, and it’s bringing the oil on a free ride right into the coastal salt marshes on a southerly wind,” says Dr. Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It is also peak migration season for birds crossing the gulf; tens of thousands of exhausted shorebirds are going to be arriving in the next two weeks. They’re flying over water and stopping to refuel on the beaches and in the estuaries along the Gulf Coast, directly in the path of this massive spill.” 

As with other environmentalists, Dr. Rosenberg blames “our thirst for fossil fuel” for this unprecedented manmade disaster. 

“We’ve been playing Russian roulette with our environment, and the gun just went off,” he says. 

Precursor to Human Harm 

“Birds are an important first indicator of environmental health, and the old analogy of the canary in the coal mine is really relevant here,” Dr. Rosenberg says. “A lot of these birds are going to die, but that’s just the beginning of the story of what might happen to the coastal environment for both wildlife and people if the oil doesn’t stop flowing.” 

At first, breeding bird colonies along the coast will be devastated. Next, thousands of brown pelicans—removed from the endangered species list only last year—will be affected, along with other water-bird colonies. Dependent on fish and other marine life for food and survival, bird populations will die as oil comes ashore. Gulf Coast ecosystems are already extremely fragile because of Hurricane Katrina and other storms. 

De-Oiling Birds 

The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates millions of birds are at risk. 

“When a bird’s feathers become clogged with oil, they no longer act as a waterproof coat,” says Dr. Ian Robinson, IFAW’s emergency relief director. “Cold water penetrates to the bird’s skin and rapidly leads to hypothermia. 

“At the same time, as the bird preens to try and clean the oil from the feathers, it inadvertently ingests toxic oil, which leads to symptoms of poisoning, including diarrhea and dehydration.” 

“There will be a lot of people mobilized to try to save individual birds by bringing them into rehab and de-oiling them,” Dr. Rosenberg adds, “and there will be some success in saving individual birds. But whether that can save the breeding populations in these areas—we don’t know. If the oil then comes into the coastal marshes and the inshore ecosystems and kills the oyster beds and the shrimp and the fish nurseries, then there are much longer-lasting effects not only on birds, but on an entire way of life for people of this region.” 

For Your Organic Bookshelf: Shattered Lives: Anatomy of an Oil Spill