Flying straight for disaster

Canadian birds are about to fly south for the winter, thousands won’t be returning

Getty Images

Canadian birds are about to fly south for the winter, but thanks to the oil slick contaminating their temporary home along the Gulf of Mexico, thousands won’t be returning.

Although oil has stopped leaking from BP’s underwater Gulf pipeline, more than 1,000 km of coast and almost 20,000 acres of inland marsh have been contaminated with toxic hydrocarbons, and those numbers are expected to increase as hurricane season churns up submerged crude and spreads the greasy sheen covering wetlands. It’s a mess that’s already decimated local wildlife populations, and is now lying in wait for tens of millions of unwitting Canadian ducks, geese and other birds—including endangered white pelicans and piping plovers.

Pat Kehoe, a Ducks Unlimited biologist, says most duck and geese species won’t see a significant drop in numbers, but that the oil’s impact could be devastating to endangered birds like the tiny sand-coloured piping plover, which only numbers about 6,000 in North America. “The oil gets in their feathers and they can be submerged and drown,” he says. “It’s a major environmental disaster. The ground gained from the conservation efforts over the last 20, 30, 40 years could be lost.”

The situation seems to be getting worse as storm season approaches and the oil breaks down, leaving a lighter slick on the water’s surface that is still harmful to birds, but very difficult to detect. An intensive cleanup is ongoing, but Kehoe says there’s only so much that can be done after a spill, and that the meaningful work will be in stopping such a disaster from happening again.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.