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Deepwater Horizon oil affected land birds as well as seabirds

Deepwater Horizon oil has affected the Seaside Sparrow, which lives in salt marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and is a year-round resident of Louisiana.
Deepwater Horizon oil has affected the Seaside Sparrow, which lives in salt marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and is a year-round resident of Louisiana. Photo by Elliotte Rusty Harold/Shutterstock.

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in April 2010, at least 130 million gallons of oil escaped into the northern Gulf of Mexico over the course of nearly three months. The spill caused immediate environmental damage, coating birds, sea creatures, and coastal marshes alike.

The long-term effects of the catastrophe are still being studied. That the oil is present in the planktonic food web of the Gulf’s waters has already been established. Now, thanks to researchers from Louisiana State University and Austin Peay State University, we know that it has also been incorporated into the tissues of a terrestrial vertebrate — the Seaside Sparrow.

The sparrow is a year-round resident of Louisiana’s salt marshes, and eats a wide variety of aquatic and land-based invertebrate prey. Birds and other animals incorporate isotopes of various elements into their tissues from the food they consume, creating unique molecular “signatures” that scientists can use to understand dietary origins and food chains, among other things.

Two carbon isotopes are absent or reduced in fossil carbon (such as oil) but are abundant in organic matter such as live insect prey. Knowing this, the researchers looked at the relative levels of carbon isotopes in sparrows from both contaminated and oil-free sites.

The results indicated that sparrows from contaminated sites had incorporated carbon from oil into their tissues, providing the first evidence that Deepwater Horizon oil had entered the land-based food web.

An earlier study had found that the same sparrow population had experienced reduced reproductive success for at least two years following the spill. It was once thought the falloff may have been due to a reduction in prey or vegetation cover, but the current research suggests direct toxicological effects may have been a contributing factor.


The research appeared in Environmental Research Letters. 

Pelican-tracking project uncovers impact of Gulf oil spill in Minnesota.

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

Winter hummingbirds in the Gulf.

Read the paper

A. Bonisoli-Alquati, P.C. Stouffer, R.E. Turner, S. Woltmann, and S.S. Taylor (2016) Incorporation of Deepwater Horizon Oil in a Terrestrial Bird. Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 11: 114023.



Originally Published

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Julie Craves

Julie Craves

Julie Craves is an ecologist and the retired director of the Rouge River Bird Observatory in Dearborn, Michigan. She answers readers’ questions about birds in her column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching. A tireless researcher and bird bander with a keen interest in the stopover ecology of migrant birds, she is also a personable writer with a gift for making everything she writes readable and entertaining. Her first article in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching), “Forest Fire-tail,” a profile of the American Redstart, appeared in June 1994. Send a question to Julie. Read her blog at

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