Birds drenched in oil are one of the most moving and iconic images that results from oil spills. Looks can be deceiving, both because as few as one-tenth of the birds affected by oil will ever wash up on shore, and because underwater plumes of oil could decimate marine ecosystems invisible to the human eye. That said, birds are among the most vulnerable creatures as the BP oil spill continues to spread in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to oiled feathers, which destroys the birds' natural waterproofing; birds ingest oil directly or as part of a contaminated diet; or may experience oiled nesting, wintering or migratory habitat. The American Bird Conservancy has mapped critical habitats along the Gulf Coast designated by the federal or state governments, themselves or other groups, like the National Audubon Society. (Larger Gulf of Mexico bird habitat map.) The Gulf of Mexico, and its U.S. coastline particularly, is critical habitat for countless species of wildlife, including fish, marine mammals and birds. The food they find in the shallows, and the beach habitat are unique in the world. The birds highlighted here were identified by the American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society or federal agencies because they could be affected by the BP Gulf oil spill.
Threatened throughout its range, which is restricted to North America, and endangered around the Great Lakes, the piping plover is a shorebird that could be severely affected by the oil spill this winter. Like other beach-nesting shorebirds, it is threatened not only by contamination of its food supply insects, crabs and other invertebrates but by direct contamination of its nesting habitat.
After having rebounded in the century since plume-hunting was common, the roseate spoonbill is now threatened by the Gulf oil spill. And, despite decades of recovery, its population remains below that of the pre-hunting era, and it remains a "species of special concern" in both Louisiana and Florida, where the oil spill could have its greatest impact. Like other large wading birds, the roseate spoonbill feeds in marshes along the coast and nests in large rookeries, so their feeding and nesting habitat could be ruined by the oil slick.
The hulking brown pelican has rightly received a lot of attention as the oil spill cleanup progresses. The state bird of Louisiana, they have just begun nesting on barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, eat fish from nearshore waters, and can easily become oiled by the slick. Like many birds, brown pelicans were nearly wiped out by the use of the pesticide DDT, exposure to which made their eggs so brittle they were crushed as the birds tried to incubate them. The banning of the chemical led to a remarkable 40-year recovery, and in 2009 they were removed from the U.S. endangered species list.
Like terns and gulls, black skimmers nest in late spring along the Gulf Coast, eat fish by skimming the water, in this case and are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of the oil spill. According to the National Audubon Society, which lists them as a yellow WatchList species because they are losing habitat and because they have yet to fully recover from 19th century egg- and feather-hunting, "The bird's buoyant flight and dog-like barks inspired famed ornithologist R. C. Murphy in 1936 to describe them as 'unworldly... aerial beagles hot on the scent of aerial rabbits."
Like plovers and egrets, the American oystercatcher is vulnerable to the BP oil spill because its food supply could easily become contaminated as it nests on beaches along the Gulf Coast. The oystercatcher, unlike those other beach-nesting shorebirds, eats oysters, not invertebrates. Designated a yellow WatchList bird by the National Audubon Society, oystercatchers rely on a relatively few winter habitats, in North Carolina and Texas, making them vulnerable to a catastrophe like a hurricane... or an oil spill.
Designated a red WatchList species by the National Audubon Society, the mottled duck may be easily mistaken for more common cousins. But because its range is restricted to the Gulf Coast, primarily in Louisiana and Texas, it is particularly vulnerable to the effects of the BP oil spill. Before the spill, loss of coastal wetlands was the major threat, as draining, filling and erosion degraded habitat.
Nearly extirpated from the U.S. by about 1900, this beautiful shorebird survived the hat-plume craze but barely. Reddish egret numbers remain low, and the National Audubon Society has designated it a red WatchList species because habitat loss threatens the remaining population. Most breeding happens along the Texas Coast, and the Florida population before the BP oil spill stood at just 10% of historic levels.
Designated a WatchList species by the National Audubon Society because it is in decline, the snowy plover is possibly the most adorable bird to be affected by the oil spill. Though they also nest along the Gulf of California and the West Coast, Snowy plovers would be severely affected by oil on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. West Coast habitat has drastically declined due to development since 1970, and the West Coast population of snowy plovers are a threatened species. The birds had already stopped nesting in several Gulf Coast locations prior to the oil spill.
While common and not a threatened species, the snowy egret, like the great egret and other wading birds, is found along the Gulf Coast yearround; this is the heart of its habitat. Birds like these are historically important to the conservation movement; the National Audubon Society was founded to stop the hunting of birds for their feathers, which in the late 19th century, were used for fashionable ladies' hats.
While common and currently not considered a threatened or endangered species, the white ibis nests in the Gulf of Mexico, from Louisiana east, making it vulnerable to impacts from the BP oil spill. In recent years, white ibis populations have expanded north along the East Coast, and as a species, it tends to respond quickly to changes in the environment, potentially shielding it from severe population declines due to the oil spill.
A common bird that isn't threatened, the royal tern winters on the Gulf of Mexico, as well as on the Southeast Coast, and the West Coast from Southern California to Central America.
Don't be fooled by the meek looks of this little sandpiper. The dunlin is described as "falcon-like" by the National Audubon Society because it can reach speeds of up to 110 mph in flight. While very common and widespread with a stable population, the American Bird Conservancy warns that it could be affected by the Gulf oil spill.
While North American populations of Caspian terns are stable or even increasing, their population is dropping in other parts of the world, making U.S. conservation important. They are yearround residents of the Gulf Coast. Like other terns, they nest and roost on Gulf of Mexico islands and beaches at this time of year, according to the National Audubon Society, which warns: "Because they roost and nest directly on the sand and plunge-dive into the water to catch fish, they are extremely vulnerable both to oil on the surface of the water and oil washing ashore."
Great Blue Heron
A common bird whose population is increasing, the great blue heron could nonetheless lose substantial habitat in the Gulf of Mexico, due to the BP oil spill.
The smallest of the terns, the least tern is listed as threatened or endangered in almost every state where it is found, and the federal government considers it "of special concern." While it doesn't breed solely along the Gulf Coast, this shorebird would suffer from the loss or degradation of beach habitat.