Birds of Prey: White Pelicans in Minnesota Are Contaminated By Oil, Corexit from BP Disaster


Last week, many people were pained to see — for the first time —photographs by government experts showing dead, oiled sea turtles taken in the weeks immediately after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. It was not surprising that federal officials kept these photos, which also showed sperm whales swimming through an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, under wraps for so long. The ongoing tragedy of oil-covered endangered turtles and stranded or dying dolphins — not to mention the ruinous impact on seafood, from eyeless shrimp to lesion-covered snappers — is a grim reminder that reality on the Gulf Coast is far different from the upbeat picture that BP, with the endorsement of Washington, is selling to the American people.

But beyond the immediate damage from the more than 200 million gallons that spewed into the Gulf, experts have long warned of the insidious impact of both crude oil and the toxic chemical that was used to hide the problem — Corexit — persisting in the environment. The worst fears were that the damage could spread far beyond the bayous of the Gulf Coast once these pollutants entered the food chain. And so it may sound bizarre — biologists looking for fallout from the Deepwater Horizon some 2,000 miles away, in the lake-laden north country of Minnesota. Yet that’s where state researchers went recently, to study the eggs of the migratory white pelican.

What officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have found so far is truly a cause for alarm: Widespread evidence of oil contamination from the 2010 spill in the eggs of these proud creatures, slightly larger than Canadian geese. The researchers told Minnesota Public Radio that they found petroleum compounds in a whopping 90 percent of the first batch of pelican eggs that they tested — and that’s not all. The researchers also discovered traces of the chemical dispersant, Corexit, in 80 percent of the white pelicans.

“This high percentage really surprised me,” said Carroll Henderson, the non-game Wildlife Program supervisor for the environmental agency, told Minnesota Public Radio. He added: “I think it gives us a real heads up here that we may have created a very vital study. I’m not aware of any other northern states that are looking at the impact of the gulf oil spill on migratory birds.” Well, maybe those other states should be looking into this. White pelicans are far from the only birds who migrate to the once-rich wetlands of the Gulf region in winter, so it’s unlikely that they’re the only species that has been poisoned by the wanton recklessness of BP.

What we don’t know — and what these on-the-ball researchers hope to learn over the next several years — is what kind of impact that the oil-spill pollution will have on these graceful creatures and their delicate eggs. But the scientists are quite worried that the toxins will harm the embryo of the pelican before the egg can hatch. Mark Clark, an ecologist at North Dakota State University who studies pelican eggs, told the radio network: “Any contaminant that makes its way into the bird could be bad, but it could be especially bad if it gets into the egg because that’s where the developing embryo and chick starts. And when things go wrong at that stage there’s usually no recovery.”

Although this new report out of Minnesota is not good, past experience has taught us that it will certainly be years before we know the full extent of wildlife damage that was caused by BP. Also this week, the Daily Comet in Louisiana published an article that gave voice to some of the concerns about the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon and the impact on birds:

“There are some basic things that we don’t yet know,” said Melanie Driscoll, the National Audubon Society’s director of bird conservation for the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Flyway. “We hope what we’re seeing is hopeful. There are a lot of birds breeding on islands that were heavily oiled. But we just don’t know. We’ve seen the short-term effects of the spill — a lot of dead birds. It takes time to see the long-term effects.”

This story notes that impact on bird populations from an oil spill such as the Exxon Valdez often took four years or more to show up. There are a number of reasons for this: Toxins take a while to work through the food chain, and some species like the brown pelican — an iconic bird here on the shores of the Gulf — typically won’t mate until it’s 3 or 4 years old, and so that is when deformities in newborns may occur. In fact, a Natural Resources Damage Assessment that Louisiana performs after a catastrophe like the one that occurred in 2010– so that it can tally the devastation and present BP with a bill for restoring the environment — can take up to 10 years.

That’s a long time — and it’s just one more reminder of how long America may have to deal with the fallout from BP’s reckless act of eco-terrorism. Even if you live as far away from the Gulf as Minnesota.

Here is the full report on the study of white pelicans and oil-spill pollution from Minnesota Public Radio:

You can read the Daily Comet’s report on how the Deepwater Horizon spill is affecting birds at

My blog post from May 8 about the oil spill photographs that the U.S. government didn’t want you to see is here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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