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Oil spill news: Species-by-species tally released

By Hugh Powell
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun posting counts of bird species that have been recovered in the Gulf of Mexico during the oil spill
Laughing Gulls on Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Benjamin Clock.

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This week we were encouraged to see that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun posting counts of bird species that have been recovered in the Gulf of Mexico during the oil spill. The first such report lists 4,676 individuals representing some 85 species, plus another 19 categories for incompletely identified birds.

The new information, which the Fish and Wildlife Service says they will update regularly, is a major improvement over the daily grand totals that had been released up until now. Those reports specified how many birds had been collected oiled or unoiled, alive or dead, but made no distinction between species.

Among the hardest-hit species, the report shows that 568 Brown Pelicans were collected, only 192 of them alive. Laughing Gulls took the greatest losses, with 1,885 collected. Only 294 of those were captured alive. Northern Gannets (391) and Royal Terns (203) are the third and fourth most numerous species on the list.

More than 2,300 birds—almost exactly half the total—were collected without any visible oiling. This curious pattern, of higher than normal deaths but no direct sign of oiling, has been noted in birds, sea turtles, and dolphins throughout the course of the spill.

Among the definitely oiled species are some saddening surprises, such as an Eastern Kingbird, a Barn Swallow, three Mourning Doves, and two Ospreys. Even though the great majority of waterfowl have yet to arrive on the Gulf Coast, workers found oiled Surf Scoters (2), Ruddy Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Horned Grebe, 23 Pied-billed Grebes and 43 Common Loons. The list also contains 13 species of herons, egrets, ibis, and spoonbills.

Ocean-going birds are of particular concern in this spill since it involves so much oil, so far out to sea. Pelagic species are likely to encounter oil but very unlikely to be found; nevertheless, eight species have been recovered so far: Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Audubon’s, Cory’s, and Great Shearwaters, Magnificent Frigatebird, Masked Booby, Northern Gannet, and Sooty Tern. (Of six frigatebirds listed in the report, only one was found alive; we hope it was the one we found and reported on June 21).

This tally is still incomplete—the total of 4,676 individuals accounts for not quite 60 percent of the number reported in grand totals (8,022) as of September 16. A press release issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service says as much, cautioning that their numbers should still be considered preliminary, and that verifying the species totals takes their biologists several weeks.

It’s a good sign that this basic species information is being made available. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found itself in the position of bearing bad news to the public despite having had no involvement in the spill itself. By providing more information about the losses, they aid both the scientists trying to understand the spill and the bird watchers who just want to come to grips with the creatures we’ve lost.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library