Gulf Oil Spill Could Affect Maine Bird Populations

July 20, 2010

( -- Even though the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t likely to directly affect Maine coastal habitats and wildlife, it likely will affect some of the birds that are iconic in Maine, including the common loon, many of the state’s shore birds and some of its tern species.

It will be some time before we can really measure the effects as we try to track numbers of passing through or coming back to breed, but it will have long-term effects to many of the Maine birds that winter in or pass through the Gulf of Mexico, says Rebecca Holberton, associate professor of biology.

“The immediate impacts, of course, are what you see,” she says. “The , the loss of immediate habitat for nesting and resting… It also burns the skin, it’s toxic, it’s ingested. Birds immediately start to preen and try to remove that oil to regain their buoyancy.”

Though birds can be brought in and washed to get the oil off them, have their stomachs flushed, and fed Pepto Bismol or something similar to help coat the stomach and neutralize the toxins, it’s a matter of waiting, she says. “You try to give them safe haven, a safe place to keep warm and to feed them, but many times their organs shut down; it’s too late,” she says.

“If you could clean everything up and get the Gulf coastline looking back to snuff this fall, it would be a blip, because the effects on the food base for many species will be long-term. Many of the species affected are long-lived and it’s part of their natural history to produce over a longer period of time,” Holberton says. “So, even after the coastlines are cleared of oil, ’our’ birds may not find enough food to enable them to survive the winter or to make it to their wintering destinations in order to return back here to breed.”

Because the oil contamination will have long-term effects, Holberton is concerned about what might happen to populations that cannot withstand more than a year or two without some reproduction. If the situation threatens the survival of the adults, it likely will threaten future generations of offspring.

“These birds, as a normal part of their life history, span the globe,” Holberton says. “In terms of the , it will really hit at the heart of the critical period of life history for many of the species that either come and breed here or pass through the region.”

Explore further: Gulf of Maine census surprises scientists

Related Stories

Estonian oil spill threatens 35,000 birds

February 7, 2006

As many as 35,000 birds, including rare white-tailed eagles and eagle owls, are in danger as the result of an oil spill off Estonia's northwest coast.

Oil slick threatens birds and marine animals

May 2, 2010

Its long, brown neck held firmly in a blue towel, the northern gannet struggled for freedom, unaware of how very lucky it is to have been found swimming in a sea of oil off the Louisiana coast.

Birds frozen in oil: image of a desperate summer

June 5, 2010

(AP) -- They are the ghastly images of a summer fouled before it started. Squawking seagulls and majestic brown pelicans coated in oil. Click. Gunk dripping from their beaks. Click. Big eyes wide open. Click. Even the professionals ...

Don't kill oiled birds, say UC Davis experts

June 14, 2010

( -- Rescuing oiled birds is the right thing to do because more of them survive and reproduce than previously thought, say UC Davis oiled wildlife experts in the first scientific review of all oiled-bird survival ...

Recommended for you

A village of bacteria to help frogs fight disease

October 7, 2015

The naturally occurring bacteria on a frog's skin could be the most important tool for helping the animal fight off a deadly skin disease, according to an experiment conducted by Virginia Tech researchers.

Research reveals new clues about how humans become tool users

October 7, 2015

New research from the University of Georgia department of psychology gives researchers a unique glimpse at how humans develop an ability to use tools in childhood while nonhuman primates—such as capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees—remain ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.