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Birds affected by the California oil spill

California oil spill
A Western Snowy Plover coated in oil sits on a California beach. Photo by Sandrine Biziaux-Scherson

As of Thursday evening, 25 individual oiled birds have been recovered alive in the aftermath of the vast oil spill along the coast of Orange County, California. And 10 dead birds have also been found.

Two species — Snowy Plover and Western Grebe — have been affected the most thus far, at least based on the recoveries. Officials report seven individuals of each species have been found alive.

Three Sanderlings have also been brought in for treatment, as have one individual each of Ruddy Duck, Eared Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, American Coot, California Gull, Western Gull, Double-crested Cormorant, and Brown Pelican.

The dead birds include three Brandt’s Cormorants, three Double-crested Cormorants, and one each of American Coot, Western Gull, Red-footed Booby, and Black-crowned Night-Heron. This webpage provides daily updates on recovered wildlife from this spill. 

It’s unclear if all 25 birds found alive are still alive or if some may have died.


In a separate report, for example, California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported finding a Brown Pelican that had sustained wing injuries. It was humanely euthanized, according to an agency spokesperson.

Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of bird conservation, told E&E News that she expects many more birds to be found, and “there are going to be impacts that are going to be hard to quantify.” In other words, some birds that become oiled will attempt to clean oil off of their feathers and then will become ill over time, potentially leading to death from the oil or because they’ll be caught by a predator.

“This is a catastrophe for the already threatened Western Snowy Plover,” says local birder and photographer Sandrine Biziaux-Scherson. “I am part of a group with Sea and Sage Audubon and California State Parks that tries to protect the WSPL on Orange County beaches. It’s heartbreaking to see what is going on after all the efforts the team has done.”

On Tuesday along a small section of Huntington State Beach, she saw two Sanderlings, two Snowy Plovers, and one Western Gull that were affected by oil. “Snowy Plovers are really hard to spot,” she adds. “They hunker down in the sand, and you have to be trained to see them. Because they have short legs, they are more likely to be impacted by oil pellets.”


Prime habitats threatened

The disaster released 126,000 to 140,000 gallons of oil into the ocean. Much of it washed in toward the city of Huntington Beach. It has now drifted as far south as San Diego County.

In the early days of the spill, Brown Pelicans were seen diving for fish only to plunge into oil. Several other seabird species likely experienced similar fates far from coastal areas, where they would have a higher chance of being rescued.

Two prime bird habitats in the Huntington Beach area are threatened directly by the oil. Talbert Marsh, which has a count of 155 species according to eBird, is experiencing serious impacts due to the oil spill. Booms were placed to keep additional oil out of the wetlands, and the city said clean-up efforts have begun, “leading to a large improvement in the area.” Aerators will be installed to supplement oxygen due to the lack of water flow from the ocean.

Meanwhile, the Huntington Beach Fire Department continues to monitor the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which is home to about 300 bird species, according to eBird. At this time, the city reports no oil within the reserve.


According to Unified Command, which includes federal and state agencies responding to the spill, approximately 172,500 pounds of oily debris has been recovered from shorelines, and 5,544 total gallons of crude oil have been recovered by vessel. And more than 14,000 feet of containment boom have been deployed. 

“What we’re seeing here is the legacy of our addiction to fossil fuels — this is something that will keep happening unless we switch to clean energy,” says Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer for Oceana, a group working to protect the world’s oceans. “No matter how much you clean up a spill, there will always be oil that lingers for years and years.”

If you see oiled wildlife, DO NOT attempt to rescue it yourself. Instead, report any oiled wildlife to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network hotline which can be reached at (877) 823-6926 or to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center at (949) 494-3050.


For more updates on bird rescues, including photos and videos, see the Facebook pages of International Bird Rescue and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network

At least 820,000 birds perished in the 2010 Gulf oil spill

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