Gulf Oil Spill Q&A
Ken Rosenberg, director of Conservation Science, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, answers questions about the Gulf oil spill.
Q: Which Gulf bird species are, or could be, affected by the oil leak?
A: The birds that we have been most immediately concerned about are the colonial nesting waterbirds that are breeding right now on the Gulf and especially those that feed on fish by diving into the water. That includes the Brown Pelicans, five species of terns, especially Royal Terns and Sandwich Terns, and Black Skimmers. Then there are the birds breeding in the coastal salt marsh ecosystem-herons, egrets, spoonbills, Clapper Rails, and Seaside Sparrows. Seabirds are the group we probably know the least about because the live way out in the Gulf of Mexico, although they are surely being heavily impacted. If the oil moves down along the Florida coast and gets into the Gulf Stream current, it could be carried through the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic Coast. Then there are many more seabirds, including endangered species such as Black-capped Petrels, that we'll become very concerned about. The leak will also have an impact on migrant shorebirds. These birds travel long distances between South America and the Arctic and use Gulf beaches as a stopover. Already during spring migration, many shorebirds, such as Sanderlings, were seen with oil on their feathers.
Q: Is there any way to know how many birds are being affected, or could potentially be affected, by the leak?
A: We know there's one Brown Pelican colony in the Mississippi Delta region that is home to 3,000 pairs of Brown Pelicans-the upper Gulf Coast supports 40 percent of the Brown Pelicans breeding in the U.S. Most of the oiled birds found have been Brown Pelicans. I think it's safe to assume that we are only able to find and recover a small percentage of the birds that might actually be affected because so much of the coastline is remote and inaccessible. And we're not likely to see the birds that get oiled and die farther out in the Gulf. The region also supports 70 percent of Sandwich Terns in the U.S., and 42 percent of the southeastern population of Least Terns.
Q: Could the oil leak impact birds migrating again in the fall?
A: It will definitely affect the fall migration. Shorebirds have a very short breeding season in the Arctic, and their fall migration starts in July. Right now state and federal agencies as well as non-government conservation organizations are working to come up with a standard protocol for assessing shorebird populations along the length of the Gulf Coast and determining what percentage of them may be getting oiled.
Benjamin Clock/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Q: What are some of the potential short- and long-term effects of this leak on birds in the Gulf?
A: In the short term, birds that get oil on their feathers lose the natural waterproofing oils that keep them from getting cold, so they could die of hypothermia even though Gulf waters are relatively warm. If the coating of oil is heavy enough, the bird cannot even fly. The oil itself is toxic, so even a small amount on the feathers is dangerous. It's a triple threat for birds: they ingest the oil when they preen, when they dive into the water, and when they eat any marine life that has been contaminated. If the food supply in the Gulf is tainted, the birds have nothing to feed on or to feed their young, so we could have reproductive failure in the waterbird colonies.
Q: Do oiled birds that are rescued and cleaned have much chance of survival?
A: There are only a few small studies that address this subject and their findings range from a very low survival rate in some areas to a pretty good survival rate in others, with the rescued birds able to breed again. Certainly, we as humans want to reach out and help the individual birds and other wildlife being affected, and this is a worthwhile effort. I think it's important, though, for people to understand that cleaning individual birds is just the beginning of the conservation story because the end goal is to restore the populations of affected species and to make sure their habitat and the entire ecosystem is restored in the long term. This is much more difficult and expensive, but needs to be part of the cost dedicated to the "cleanup."
Q: How is this oil spill different from any other we've seen?
A: This is very different from a tanker spill, where you have a finite amount of oil leaking into the environment, usually on the surface of the water. Not knowing the true extent of the leak, not knowing where the oil is going to show up-this is very different from the usual type of oil spill from a ship. A lot of this now is just waiting and watching, knowing that the effects of the leak are certain to be felt for weeks and months to come.
Q: What kinds of things are being done to help the birds in the Gulf?
A: A tremendous amount of work going on to identify the most important sites for protection or cleanup, as well as rescue of oiled birds. It's also important to collect data so we can monitor what's happening to birds. Right from day one, birders along the coast have played a key role in providing a snapshot of which birds are frequently what areas. The Cornell Lab is mobilizing eBird project participants, asking birders along the Coast to report what they're seeing and also to report any sick or oiled birds they see. We've had a great response—more than 175,000 bird observations submitted in the first six weeks. We have also had a professional videographer and biologist on the scene since early June to document impacts and the wildlife ecosystems along the Gulf so that we can tell the full biological story of what's happening.
Q: What can the average person do to help birds in the Gulf region?
A: If you don't live in any of the Gulf states, probably the best you can do right now is offer support to the many groups and agencies that are doing conservation work in the region right now—the immediate cleanup and rescue work, as well as the long-term monitoring and assessment needed to determine the actual impact of this leak. That includes the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We're in this for the long haul and our aim is to provide science support to these groups.
Q: Is there a take-away lesson from this crisis?
A: This is a real catastrophe that happened because the energy companies and the government agency that was supposed to be regulating them just were not prepared technologically for this sort of disaster. Yet they were taking risks mining the seabed for oil. This explosion and leak could have happened somewhere else; it could happen again. As much as our country does want oil and as much as our economy depends on it, we have to take a very serious, long-term look at what the risks are and make sure we're prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios like the one we're facing now.
June 22, 2010