Oil Spill Wildlife Spotlight: Snowy Plover

(Snowy Plover/Courtesy of FWS)

For now, the good news for the snowy plover is that it’s breeding season which means some of the population is in the Western United States and not the Gulf Coast. More snowy plovers can be found in the Gulf during the winter months during their non-breeding periods. With no sign of the oil leak being plugged in sight, however, the birds may be looking at potential endangerment in the winter anyway.


Even if the leak is stopped within the following months, lingering oil may still be present in their habitat and foraging areas. Snowy plovers are small, inconspicuous birds weighing in at only about 2 ounces and live along coastal and beach areas. About 370,000 remain in the world, though a scarce 17,700 remain in the continental United States.


By the 1990s, the breeding sites had dwindled to a fraction of their previous number in the Western United States and had completely disappeared in several areas along the Gulf Coast. Their dwindling populations have been attributed to human activities resulting in the loss and destruction of coastal habitats.  


You can tack on the BP oil spill as one more problem humans are adding to the snowy plover’s plight.


Snowy plovers breed and forage on beaches where the oil could potentially wash ashore. According to Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation, Greg Butcher, booms in place should hold back most of the oil, but only in calm weather. Strong winds or a hurricane could easily lift the oil slick over the booms and onto shore.


“The long term outlook is that they need our help, so we’re going to have to make new habitat, clean up the habitat, and get the oil out of their habitat,” said Butcher. “They have severely limited habitat and now the quality of their habitat is also limited.”


The biggest concern, according to Butcher, is if they ingest too much oil. Because their feeding grounds may be where the oil is coming ashore, the snowy plovers could eat oily insects or crustaceans or the oil itself.


The National Audubon Society has the snowy plover under its “yellow” Watchlist designation meaning it is a species either declining or rare and is of national conservation concern.



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