Jul. 5, 2017 , 6:00 PM
Some of the most devastating pictures after big oil spills are of seabirds coated in black sludge. But a new study reveals that even a small amount of oil could cause major damage to bird populations like the western sandpiper. Just a smudge on their wingtips and tails makes it much harder for them to fly than normal birds, researchers have found, which could prevent them from reaching their breeding grounds in time.
The findings are significant because they suggest that even minor oil spills can have a big impact, says Christy Morrissey, avian ecotoxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, who was not involved in the research. “There are ongoing small oil spills around the world that continue to affect shoreline habitats,” she says. “They don’t necessarily make the news, but still they’re happening.”
For years, scientists have been trying to estimate how small amounts of oil would affect bird flight, and in 2013, a team of ecologists at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, set out to find out. The researchers used western sandpipers, one of 93 shorebird species that saw their numbers decline after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For months following the 1-million-metric-ton-spill, it was common to find birds on the beach with lightly oiled feathers, says ornithologist and study lead author Ivan Maggini. “We figured that just having oil on wings’ feathers might affect their main function, which is flight.”