Oil Spill Wildlife Update: Ducks

Lesser scaups (Photo: TexasEagle, Flickr Creative Commons)

“Strictly speaking, on behalf of waterfowl and ducks, things worked out OK. We did dodge a bullet,” says Tom Moorman, Ducks Unlimited’s director of conservation planning in the southern region. Of course, despite a year having passed, still much is unknown about the oil spill’s total effect on the Gulf and its wildlife inhabitants.

Environmental groups had two main post-spill concerns regarding waterfowl: oil penetration in the inland coastal marshes (plus the ducks that feed there, like gadwalls, Northern pintails, green-winged teals, blue-winged teals, mottled ducks, American wigeons, and Northern shovelers) and the water just off coastal Louisiana (plus the ducks that feed there, like lesser scaups, canvasbacks, and redheads).

On the first count, Moorman says we caught a break, mainly because the Mississippi River’s water was high during the summer months. “The freshwater coming down really flushed the marshes,” he says. Plus, “the state operated freshwater diversions at full capacity all summer. That flushing effect really brought about some nice responses from the plants that ducks like to eat.”

That, and no major storms hit the area, he adds. “The whole time we were holding our breath, because we were just one storm away from an oily mess.”

Less is known about the impact on ducks that winter off of coastal Louisiana, including 1.4 million lesser scaup. “Those birds are out in fairly shallow water—five to 20 feet deep. We’re pretty sure they eat fingernail clams [out there],” Moorman says. “We don’t know what might have happened to the clams from the oil and dispersant combo.” The problem, he continues, isn’t if the clams were visibly contaminated such that the birds could see it, but rather, if the clams picked up the toxic substance and were then ingested by the birds. “That kind of monitoring, frankly, will have to go on for a few years,” he says.

That sounds like the bottom line for all spill-related monitoring. “We need to be watching for some time to come,” Moorman concludes. “It’s probably measured in years, not weeks or months.”

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