NAPLES — Southwest Florida's birds are safe from the oil slick, for now.
But depending on water currents and wind, that safety may not last.
All bird habitats along the Gulf Coast are potentially in danger, but where the oil slick moves will depend on water currents, wind conditions and containment efforts, said experts at the American Bird Conservancy. The nonprofit bird conservation organization put out a list of 10 globally important bird areas that may be affected in the next few days in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and North Florida.
The Gulf of Mexico spill is at more than 2 million gallons and continues to dump more oil into the Gulf every day, said Michael Fry, the organization's director of conservation advocacy. If it continues as projected, it is on track to catch up with the Exxon Valdez spill that dumped about 11 millions gallons and oiled 1,300 miles of shoreline.
“Everything that is in the Gulf region, the entire coastline is in danger,” said Gavin Shire, spokesman for the nonprofit bird conservation organization. “... There is less of a treat to the areas in Marco Island or the Everglades, but if this thing keeps spilling out – and they've said more is spilling than they originally thought – and the weather patterns change then it could drift ... as far as the Keys.”
For birds, oil poses a number of problems, Fry said. When it gets on their feathers, it damages the waterproofing characteristics and the water soaks through to their skin, which makes them cold and sometimes hypothermic.
If it gets on flight feathers, it can prevent birds from flying and hunting, and when they preen it off or eat contaminated crustaceans and fish it gets into their systems, causing liver and kidney damage, as well as lesions in the stomach and esophagus, he added.
Three types of birds are most threatened by the spill: Coastal birds, ocean birds and songbirds, Fry said.
Coastal birds are those that are most familiar and visible in Southwest Florida, the terns, egrets, herons, ibises and other birds that hunt along the shores and wetland areas and nest in colonies on Southwest Florida islands.
Those birds get oiled while wading through wetlands hunting for food, eat contaminated animals and when the oil gets on their feathers, preen it off, ingesting harmful toxins, Fry said.
Gannets, ocean birds that live at sea, have been the first birds oiled by the Deepwater Horizon spill, Fry said. Ocean birds get oiled when they plunge dive for fish or sit on the ocean's surface.
Though songbirds don't usually land in their migratory journey across the Gulf of Mexico from South and Central America to Northern America, they're in danger because of the smoke created when oil is burned off the surface of the ocean, Fry said. This time of year, there are hundreds of millions of songbirds including orioles, warblers and thrushes flying across the Gulf.
In terms of cleanup efforts, the Gulf's coastline is particularly vulnerable, Fry said, because it is more difficult to clean up marshes, wetlands and estuaries than to clean up sandy beaches.