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MARCO WERMAN: Even if you live far from the Gulf coast, you may eventually see the effects of the oil spill in your own backyard. That’s because millions of migratory birds pass through the spill area on their way to nesting grounds across North America. Some of those birds could be sickened on their annual journey. The World’s environment editor, Peter Thomson spoke to a conservationist about that concern and filed this report.
PETER THOMSON: Imagine you’re a gray cheeked thrush, you weight about one ounce, you’ve flown 3,000 miles from your wintering grounds in Brazil on your way to Northern Canada. You’re tired and hungry. You settle into a patch of coastal Louisiana to rest and eat. Say it’s the spring of 2011, a year after the Deep Water Horizon blow out and the gloppy brown oil from the wrecked off shore rig has been scooped off the beaches. Everything here looks like it always did before the spill, but there’s still a problem.
MIKE PARR: Oil, it has the capacity to soak into marshy areas and be held there and released slowly over a really long period of time.
THOMSON: That’s Mike Parr, Vice President of the American Bird Conservancy, which advocates for protection of birds and their habitats. He says oil’s tenacity means that even long after the obvious effects of a spill are gone, oil can linger in coastal environments and work its way into the food chain. Eating contaminated food might not kill the birds outright, like direct contact with the oil might, but it can have what are called “sub lethal” effects.
PARR: All those types of things can affect breeding success. It starts to have effect on the liver, the GI tract, and on vision and obviously that’s going to make it difficult for birds to forage and probably difficult for them to feed their chicks effectively.
THOMSON: We know from previous oil spills, particularly the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill which has been heavily studied, that the impacts can last for year, even decades. In coastal Louisiana and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, that could be bad news for migratory birds for years to come. And it likely means that the impact of the Deep Water Horizon blow out will reverberate far and wide because birds migrate through the spill region from throughout the western hemisphere.
PARR: They winter throughout Central America, the Yucatan Peninsula, the Caribbean and down into north and south America and some species as far south as the Andes down to Peru or even to Bolivia.
THOMSON: Most of these species go on from the Gulf farther north to the U.S., Canada and even Alaska and the Arctic. Parr says many of them are already stressed from other environmental impacts from habitat destruction to house cats. And that in the case of some of the most endangered birds, additional stresses like oil contamination could help tip the balance and send some of them over the edge toward extinction. No one really knows what the impact of the Gulf spill will be on the bird species that spend parts of their lives in the region. Creatures like the red knot which mass on beaches to feed on crab eggs. Mike Parr says the event is unprecedented, so it will be years before scientists even begin to understand the full scope of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. For The World, I’m Peter Thomson.
WERMAN: Thanks to the American Bird Conservancy and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the bird sounds in Peter’s report.
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