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Oil in Gulf Remains a Threat to Millions of Birds

With the arrival of spring comes the return of millions of birds that are flying back north so they can begin breeding and raising their young.

But, nearly a year after the BP oil spill spewed millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, experts are saying the threat to birds is far from over.

Louisiana is such a unique place for birds because not only do the marshes provide a fantastic nesting ground, but it also serves as a resting place for millions that will rest along the coast and in marshes en route to other places.

So how is the year old spill still dangerous to birds?

Despite there still being massive amounts of oil lurking about in the form of tar balls, the introduction of such a harmful product in a delicate ecosystem affects the birds in numerous ways:

1. It lowers the availability of food. Oil has the tendency to limit food sources, including fish, worms, oyster, crabs, shrimp and much more. Not only does it lower the availability, which would cause some birds to go hungry, some of the food might even contaminate the birds. For example, in an article in Surfbird News, researchers said marine worms were burrowing into tar balls, which has negative implications on the food chain:

In March, Audubon staff found marine worms burrowing in tar balls on Grande Terre, Louisiana. Laboratory analysis of the tar balls, led by researchers at Millsaps College, showed concentrations of hydrocarbons that can enter the food web through organisms like the worms and can pose long-term health risks for adult birds or fatalities or birth defects in developing bird embryos.

2. Nesting places are limited because of erosion and recovery. A lot of the coastal grasses affected by the spill have not yet returned or are still dying. This is huge because the grasses prevent erosion from happening by keeping things intact. Without the grass, erosion is slowly making areas more and more vulnerable. These are the same areas that many birds use as nesting grounds. Similarly, the entire recovery process with cleanup centers is also jeopardizing bird nesting areas. Some of the birds that will be affected the most, as reported by Surfbird News, are the Black Skimmer, Clapper Rail, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Red Knot, Sanderling, Seaside Sparrow, and Wilson’s Plover.

3. There’s an overall lack of urgency. The lack of urgency is a political rather than practical problem for birds. Last year when images of oiled and suffering birds were plastered on the news, there was a feeling of outrage. Now that coverage has decreased there’s not a big push to help save the birds and the ecosystem in general. I’ve already reported on the economic impact of birds and how important they are, so jeopardizing certain species is harmful to the whole country. Houma Today reported that in December, the count of distressed or dead birds was at 8,064 with possibly many more not counted because their bodies either sank or the effects were indirect. There are ways to minimize the loss of birds and marshland, but it will take a whole-hearted effort from everyone, including the government.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.