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Millions of birds at risk as fall migration to oil-fouled Gulf Coast nears, conservationists worry

Millions of Canada’s migratory birds, representing more than a hundred species, could be at risk when they return this fall to areas in the Gulf of Mexico affected by the oil spill, the Boreal Songbird Initiative (BSI), a conservation charity, said today. “The Gulf Coast serves as important habitat for hundreds of Canada’s bird species...

Millions of Canada’s migratory birds, representing more than a hundred species, could be at risk when they return this fall to areas in the Gulf of Mexico affected by the oil spill, the Boreal Songbird Initiative (BSI), a conservation charity, said today.

“The Gulf Coast serves as important habitat for hundreds of Canada’s bird species which use the region for wintering grounds and migratory stopover habitat,” said the non-profit organization, which is dedicated to outreach and education about the importance of Canada’s boreal forest to North America’s birds.

“The world’s largest migration occurs every year when billions of birds fly from Canada to areas south, including the Gulf Coast,” said Jeff Wells, senior scientist at the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “We’re not sure what these birds will face when they return to areas hit by the oil spill, but certainly a large number of birds could be vulnerable to illness or even death.”

The migratory birds of Canada’s boreal forest represent a significant percentage of the birds that winter in the Gulf Coast region or stop during their travels further south, BSI explained in a news release. “Canada’s boreal forest is the world’s largest intact forest and is home to more than 300 bird species, including 80 percent of North American waterfowl species, 63 percent of finches and 53 percent of warblers.”


Graphic courtesy of the Boreal Songbird Initiative. Click the image to enlarge the graphic.

“There’s been a lot of attention to oil spill effects on local resident species,” Wells said. “But there’s a lurking time bomb for many waterfowl and shorebirds that breed in Canada’s boreal forest and winter or stop in the Gulf.”

Nearly five billion of Canada’s migratory birds fly south every fall, Wells added. He and other experts worry these birds could face both long- and short-term adverse effects to shoreline habitat, necessary winter food sources and health.

“The Gulf Coast is vitally important for many wetland bird species. The marshes, beaches and tidal flats provide ideal nesting areas and habitat for millions of waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds and other water birds. These habitats also house fish, mollusks and other marine life that provide the food supply for many of these birds. The impact on smaller food sources like plankton could have a ripple effect on the entire food chain. There may also be longer-term effects stemming from physiological impacts of ingested oil that could lead to lower breeding success rates.

“Currently, nesting birds such as terns, gulls and pelicans are hit hardest by the oil spill. Louisiana’s coast supports an estimated 77 percent of the U.S. breeding population of Sandwich Tern, 52 percent of Forster’s Tern and 44 percent of black skimmer. Many of North America’s most at-risk species also live in the region during a portion of the year, including Yellow Rail, Black Rail, Snowy Plover, Piping Plover, and Short-billed Dowitcher. The oil spill could pose long-term implications for the health of their total populations,” BSI said.

“We’ve really only seen the tip of the iceberg so far,” Wells said. “Species from the boreal and other areas may encounter habitats and food sources contaminated with oil on their journey south that may cause illness or even mortality. These birds, and the generations to come after them, are endangered by the oil spill’s impact to critical marsh and beach habitat.

“While there isn’t much that can be done to mitigate effects of the oil spill on wildlife,” Wells added, “there are ways to protect bird populations in the future through prevention of habitat loss and fragmentation–one of the leading causes of declining bird populations worldwide.

“By protecting intact ecosystems such as the 1.4 billion acres of Canada’s Boreal Forest,” said Wells, “we can give these critical populations of migratory birds a fighting chance of recovering from devastating occurrences such as the Gulf oil spill.”

Posted by David Braun from media materials supplied by the Boreal Songbird Initiative.

In the video above, Ducks Unlimited (DU) conservation staff discuss the characteristics of the boreal forest in Canada. The boreal forest is critical breeding territory for more than ten species of ducks–100 percent of their breeding happens there. DU is focused on protecting pristine boreal habitat. Learn more:

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn