The news from the Gulf of Mexico about oil killing countless birds is heartbreaking, but to me it has been a little obscure: I don’t understand how oil kills birds. So I did some research, and here are the maudlin details.
Birds’ feathers keep them alive. Each feather is precisely positioned to create a water-tight, air-tight bodysuit that maintains a bird’s body temperature in cold or hot water. When birds preen, they are carefully repositioning each feather. Another reason birds preen is to spread the natural body oil their glands secrete to condition and waterproof their feathers. (Washing oiled birds removes this beneficial body oil, but the birds will produce more as long as their glands have not been damaged.) Preening is so important that if forced to choose, a bird will preen rather than eat.
Oil coats and separates birds’ feathers so they cannot lay properly against each other, leaving the bird vulnerable to heat and cold. Oiled birds preen in a doomed effort to remove the oil from their feathers, while in the process they ingest oil which poisons them.
Oil can cause hypothermia or hyperthermia, dehydration, and starvation in birds whose feathers cannot protect them, who spend more time preening than eating, and who ingest oil both when they eat and when they preen. Oil can also make a bird too heavy to fly.
There is some debate over whether bird rescuers who clean, rehabilitate, and release oiled birds are making any difference. Some scientists say that nearly all of the rehabilitated birds, once released into new habitats, die quickly, and that it would be more merciful to euthanize them upon capture. Others argue that rehabilitation is effective. It seems that most agree that in the case of at least one species, the brown pelican, rehabilitation is worth trying because without it the species is almost certain to become extinct. After close to 40 years on the endangered species list, the brown pelican was delisted only last year.
Understanding the mechanics behind the tragedy only makes it sadder as it becomes easier to imagine the birds’ suffering and clearer that perhaps there is little we can do to help. Still, I can’t give up on the birds who need help today. But for the long term the most effective action is to prevent future tragedies by continuing the effort, so familiar it is almost trite, to reduce our dependence on oil. So turn off your computer, your speakers, and your monitor (or just your laptop) when you’re done – it may save a bird some day.