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Bird mortality from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. II. Carcass sampling and exposure probability in the coastal Gulf of Mexico

  • Terra Mar Applied Sciences, LLC
  • St. Hubert Research Group
  • JWS Consulting LLC


Two separate approaches, a carcass sampling model and an exposure probability model, provided estimates of bird mortalities of 600 000 and 800 000, respectively, from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon MC 252 oil spill in coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Monte Carlo simulation of parameter uncertainty led to respective 95% uncertainty intervals of 320 000 to 1200 000 and 160 000 to 1900 000. Carcass sampling relied on expansion factors multiplied by counts of bird carcasses retrieved in shoreline surveys, whereas exposure probability estimated bird deaths as a product of estimated coastal bird density, average oil slick size, slick duration, and proportionate mortality due to oiling. The low proportion of small-sized carcasses recovered, compared with considerably higher proportions of small live birds in coastal Gulf habitats, indicate an especially low probability of recovery for small birds after oil spills at sea. Most mortality affected 4 species: laughing gull Leucophaeus atricilla (32% of the northern Gulf of Mexico population killed), royal tern Thalasseus maximus (15%), northern gannet Morus bassanus (8%) and brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis (12%). Declines in laughing gulls were confirmed by similar to 60% reductions in National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count data for 2010-2013 along the Gulf coast. Population-level effects in apex predators of this magnitude likely had effects on prey populations that warrant careful assessment.
Mar Ecol Prog Ser
Vol. 513: 239–252, 2014
doi: 10.3354/meps10839 Published October 22
Large oil spills into the coastal ocean can kill hun-
dreds of thousands of birds (Piatt & Ford 1996, Tan et
al. 2008, Munilla et al. 2011). Petroleum exposure
alters feather microstructure (Jenssen 1994, O’Hara
& Morandin 2010), compressing plumage so that it
loses its buoyancy, insulating function, and flight
capability (Leighton 1993). Physiological health of
birds is further impaired by oil-induced diseases
(Briggs et al. 1996), including hemolytic anemia,
ulcerations, cachexia, and aspergillosis (Balseiro et
al. 2005). Birds contaminated at sea thereby die due
to drowning, hypothermia, starvation, or dehydration.
The largest accidental release of petroleum into
marine waters in history (Camilli et al. 2012, McNutt
et al. 2012), the Deepwater Horizon MC 252 blowout
was an unprecedented perturbation to the northern
Gulf of Mexico. The cumulative slick area exceeded
100 000 km2(Norse & Amos 2010, Garcia-Pineda et
al. 2013). Oiling impacts extended from the pelagic
ocean seaward of the continental slope, across the
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Bird mortality from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
II. Carcass sampling and exposure probability in the
coastal Gulf of Mexico
J. Christopher Haney1,4,*, Harold J. Geiger2, Jeffrey W. Short3
1Terra Mar Applied Sciences LLC, 123 West Nye Lane, Suite 129, Carson City, Nevada 89706, USA
2St. Hubert Research Group, 222 Seward, Suite 205, Juneau, Alaska 99801, USA
3JWS Consulting LLC, 19315 Glacier Highway, Juneau, Alaska 99801, USA
4Present address: Defenders of Wildlife, 1130 17th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036, USA
ABSTRACT: Two separate approaches, a carcass sampling model and an exposure probability
model, provided estimates of bird mortalities of 600 000 and 800 000, respectively, from the 2010
Deepwater Horizon MC 252 oil spill in coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Monte Carlo simula-
tion of parameter uncertainty led to respective 95% uncertainty intervals of 320 000 to 1200 000
and 160 000 to 1900 000. Carcass sampling relied on expansion factors multiplied by counts of bird
carcasses retrieved in shoreline surveys, whereas exposure probability estimated bird deaths as a
product of estimated coastal bird density, average oil slick size, slick duration, and proportionate
mortality due to oiling. The low proportion of small-sized carcasses recovered, compared with
considerably higher proportions of small live birds in coastal Gulf habitats, indicate an especially
low probability of recovery for small birds after oil spills at sea. Most mortality affected 4 species:
laughing gull Leucophaeus atricilla (32% of the northern Gulf of Mexico population killed), royal
tern Thalasseus maximus (15%), northern gannet Morus bassanus (8%) and brown pelican Pele-
canus occidentalis (12%). Declines in laughing gulls were confirmed by ~60% reductions in
National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count data for 2010−2013 along the Gulf coast. Popu-
lation-level effects in apex predators of this magnitude likely had effects on prey populations that
warrant careful assessment.
KEY WORDS: Avian mortality · Exposure probability · Carcass sampling · Oil spill · Deepwater
Horizon · Gulf of Mexico · Coastal habitat · Christmas Bird Count · Monte Carlo simulation
Mar Ecol Prog Ser 513: 239–252, 2014
continental shelf, and into remote brackish estuaries
along the Gulf coastline (Peterson et al. 2012, Michel
et al. 2013).
Avian mortality is one direct, immediate measure
of ecological impact caused by a marine oil spill.
Because it is impossible to observe each seabird
death from acute oil exposure, total mortality is usu-
ally inferred from shoreline carcass surveys and
probability-based expansion factors to account for
birds that are killed but not collected (e.g. an Oiled
Seabird Mortality Model; Wiese & Robertson 2004).
These factors account for birds that die but disappear
before arriving on shore (Wiese 2003, Munilla et al.
2011) and those on shore that go undetected by spill
responders (Van Pelt & Piatt 1995, Byrd et al. 2009).
Alternatively, seabird mortality can be estimated
from the numbers of birds present and vulnerable to
lethal exposure (Wilhelm et al. 2007, Haney et al.
2014, this volume).
Our objective here is to estimate coastal seabird
mortality from acute oil exposure during the Deep-
water Horizon spill. We compare mortality estimates
derived from both a carcass sampling model and an
exposure probability model. The carcass sampling
model includes expansion factors for lost, missed,
and unobservable bird carcasses. The exposure pro -
bability model is based on surveys of aerial seabird
densities above coastal waters of the northern Gulf of
Mexico, estimates of the size of the Deepwater Hori-
zon oil slick, and an estimate of the proportion of
oiled seabirds that subsequently died. The 2 ap -
proaches are based on largely independent data,
providing an unusual opportunity to compare alter-
native models of estimating avian mortality after a
large marine oil spill.
Study area and modeling domain
Spatially, we limited the scope of investigation to
coastal waters within 40 km offshore of the Gulf coast
(see Fig. 1 in Haney et al. 2014), thus delineating an
effective catchment area (sensu Wiese & Robertson
2004). We chose 40 km as the likely maximum
distance from shore inhabited routinely by coastal
The Deepwater Horizon discharged oil into the
Gulf from the day when the casing was breached on
20 April 2010 until the well was capped on 15 July
2010. Oil first appeared within 40 km of the coast on
28 April 2010. We thus considered the acute mortal-
ity phase to last for 95 d, until 31 July 2010, to account
for bird mortality from contact with lingering surface
oil (Aeppli et al. 2012). Avian mortality clearly con -
tinued after the well was capped (based on wildlife
collection reports) because the ratio of dead-to-live
bird recoveries increased in late July 2010 (Belanger
et al. 2010, Antonio et al. 2011).
Bird carcass tallies by size category and location
We obtained carcass counts retrieved in all habitats
during the Deepwater Horizon incident and archived
by spill response authorities ( home/
dhoilspill/ collectionreports.html, table dated 12 May
2011; accessed 22 March 2013). Using a total of 2121
carcasses identified as known oiled, we organized
these counts by species and body size. Live moribund
oiled birds were not counted as carcasses because
they could reach shorelines independent of winds
and currents (e.g. Stienen et al. 2004).
To account for variation in detectability with body
size during spill response (Seys et al. 2001, Ford &
Zafonte 2009), each bird species and all individual
birds were assigned to one of 3 size categories: large
(500 g), medium (300−499 g), or small (10−299 g).
We excluded 92 bird carcasses not considered as
coastal on the basis of primary habitat used by
each species, life history traits, and migratory habits.
Species of estuarine categorization included rails,
galli nules, certain waders, and species that occur
in terrestrial vegetation types.
Species that feed in the neritic zone and associated
shorelines, including shorebirds and other seasonal
migrants that rely upon beach or wide mudflats dur-
ing the time of year of the spill, were broadly desig-
nated as coastal for purposes of oil exposure. Birds
listed in the recovery archives as ‘other’ (a total of 31)
and ‘unknown’ (a total of 51) were categorized as
coastal and medium sized. Other birds tallied un -
known to species were assigned to the same size
category and habitat as the most commonly re -
covered species in that taxon (see Table S1 in the
Supplement at com/ articles/ suppl/ m513
p239_ supp. pdf). Dead birds assigned to the coastal
category but retrieved offshore (a total of 25 car-
casses recovered before they reached shore; see dhoilspill/ collectionreports. html),
were also subtrac ted from the carcass tally. A total of
2004 bird carcasses constituted the observations that
represented the recoveries of birds from the coastal
habitat, comprising 128 small-, 1383 medium- and
493 large-bodied bird carcasses.
Haney et al.: Bird mortality from Deepwater Horizon. II. Coastal 241
Carcass sampling model
From a sampling perspective, carcass counts can
be thought of as the realization of repeated stochastic
sampling steps, with each step reducing the number
of carcasses ultimately available for recovery (e.g.
Seys et al. 2001, Wiese & Robertson 2004). The
unknown number of bird deaths in each body size
category from the Deepwater Horizon spill was de -
noted as Nj, and the number of carcasses counted as
xj, with the index jindicating body size category (1:
large; 2: medium; 3: small). Within each body size
category, a series of 5 stochastic steps reduced the car -
casses available to be recovered by some proportion.
We denote ras the probability that a carcass was
transported and deposited on shore following a bird’s
death from oil, lthe probability that a carcass per-
sisted on shore until it could be found, hthe pro -
portion of habitat sampled for bird carcasses, kthe
proportion of the total carcass deposition period sys-
tematically sampled with a fixed interval between
successive sampling events, and dthe probability
that a carcass would be detected by searchers.
Parameters r, l, h, and kwere assumed to be the same
for all bird body size categories. Parameter dwas
assumed to vary by size category, with d1, d2, and d3
the probabilities of detection that correspond to x1,
x2, and x3. For convenience, we let pjdenote the com-
bined probability that a bird from size category jthat
died as a result of oil spill exposure was eventually
recovered. Also, we used the caret notation to indi-
cate between an estimate (e.g, p
ˆj) of a parameter and
we leave off the caret to denote either the true value
or else the parameter as a random variable (in the
Bayesian sense, e.g. pj). Then, in a sampling context
(Thompson 2002), the estimated number of total
birds killed within size category jis
The grand total number of birds estimated killed is
the sum of each N
Parameter selection
Carcasses adrift will vary in their final destination
as a consequence of daily changes in wind speed and
direction. Shelf currents in the northern and eastern
Gulf of Mexico are dominated by wind and fresh-
water driven flows (Barker 2011). Surface oil reached
Gulf shorelines only during strong onshore winds
(MacFadyen et al. 2011). We therefore estimated car-
cass drift from wind data, because neritic currents
from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River discharges
are primarily alongshore to the west in response to
Coriolis forcing.
The probability rthat a carcass was transported to
shore depends on its initial position offshore, the car-
cass drift velocity towards a shoreline, and the prob-
ability of remaining afloat en route. We assumed the
initial carcass position was proportional to the prod-
uct of the relative area densities of seabirds and sur-
face oil as a function of distance from shoreline, aver-
aged over the 95 d when seabird carcasses were
presumed present within 40 km of the shoreline. We
assumed that coastal seabird density declined from a
maximum at the shoreline to some negligibly low
value 40 km offshore, proportional to 1 − z/40, where
zindicates the distance from shoreline in km. Daily
oil slick size was calculated from shape files that
were synthesized in the Experimental Marine Pollu-
tion Surveillance Daily Composite Products (www.
ssd.; accessed 11
Au gust 2013). Spatial depictions of the Deepwater
Horizon oil slick in these products were based prima-
rily on satellite sensors augmented with oil spill tra-
jectory models and other ancillary data (see ’Parame-
ter selection for exposure probability model’ in the
Supplement). The initial location of seabird carcasses
was then assumed to be proportional to the product
of the risk of oiling and the assumed seabird density
of 1 − z/40 (Table S2 in the Supplement).
We estimated shoreward carcass drift velocity from
observations of wind velocities archived for Station
BURL1, Southwest Pass, Louisiana, a C-MAN Station
maintained by the National Data Buoy Center. We
assumed a 2% coupling of wind and seabird carcass
drift speeds (Seys et al. 2001, Castege et al. 2007),
and a Coriolis deflection for seabird carcass drift of
18° to the east (Poulain et al. 2009). Shorelines where
seabird carcasses were deposited were as sumed to
face either southward (80%) or eastward (20%). Sea-
bird carcass drift speeds were computed as the
respective northward and westward components of
the drift velocity vector, and the average values of
these velocities vNand vWwere determined. The
overall average drift velocity, v--, of 4.1 km d−1 was
computed as v-= 0.8 v-
N+ 0.2 v-
W(Table S3 in the Sup-
We assumed carcasses lost buoyancy from decom-
position at an instantaneous rate of 1.00 d−1 (see
‘Computation of transport probability to shorelines’
in the Supplement), based on results reported by
Ford et al. (1991) and Wiese (2003) after accounting
for temperature differences and for likely effects of
ˆˆˆˆˆ ˆ ˆ
Mar Ecol Prog Ser 513: 239–252, 2014
scavengers that increase carcass decomposition rates.
The probability that a carcass would remain afloat
after a time tat sea was computed as exp[−(1.00 t)],
where t= z/4.1 km d−1. The probability rthat a car-
cass was transported to shore was computed as a
numerical approximation of the integral of the prod-
uct of this exponential function and the distribution
of initial carcass positions at sea as described above
(Table S4 in the Supplement).
Based on these assumptions regarding carcass losses
at sea, <1% of the carcasses would remain available
for shoreline deposition after 4 d. Inte grating these
time-dependent losses with the initial distribution of
carcasses led to an estimated average proportion of
carcasses reaching a shoreline of approximately rˆ =
0.057 (Table S4). Most of this transport probability
arises from carcasses within 15 km of the shore,
beyond which the average transport time of ~4 d or
more leads to nearly complete removal of carcasses
from the sea surface. The parameter rwas assigned a
beta probability distribution with the mean centered
at 0.057 to model uncertainty in this parameter.
To estimate the probability of carcass persistence
on a beach prior to search and recovery, l, we as -
sumed that a carcass survey was conducted every
3 d, as was originally planned (USDOI 2011). We
took the daily probability of carcass persistence to be
0.50 to account for removals by scavengers or burial
by wind- or wave-driven sediment transport, a rea-
sonable approxi mation based on other studies (Page
et al. 1990, Seys et al. 2001). We assumed that the
probability of a carcass persisting ndays was 0.50n
(n 3). Probability of carcass persistence, l, within
this deposition interval was thus the average of 1/2,
1/4 and 1/8, or 0.292. We assigned this variable a
beta distribution with a mean centered at 0.292 to
model uncertainty.
We assumed that all Gulf shorelines exposed to
neritic waters of the Gulf of Mexico and suitable for
carcass deposition were searched, so h= 1.00. We
also assumed that 90% of the shoreline surveys for
carcasses were separated by intervals of 3 d so k=
0.90. We assigned this variable a beta distribution
with the mean centered at 0.90 to model uncertainty.
Estimates of searcher efficiency (dj) were based on
Ford et al. (2013). We used a value of 0.424 (= d
ˆ1) as
the estimate of searcher efficiency for large bird car-
casses. Using the average of the 2 values for searcher
efficiency reported in Table 2 from Ford et al. (2013)
for small bird carcasses, we assumed d
ˆ3= 0.078.
Finally, we assumed the average of the values for
small and large bird carcasses, d
ˆ2= 0.251, as the
searcher efficiency for medium-sized carcasses. These
searcher efficiency parameters were also assigned
beta distributions, with the means centered at the
values listed above.
Parameter uncertainty
The beta probability distributions assigned to each
unknown parameter represent our attempt to organ-
ize and display what we do and do not know about
the parameter’s location (Silver 2012), and to assess
what would have happened had we used alternate
assumptions about the parameter values. To ex -
plain how the variances of these distributions were
derived, let qrepresent any of the carcass model
parameters. Because these are beta distributions for
parameters, the associated distribution for qhas
hyperparameters aqand bq. The mean of the beta dis-
tribution is given by aq/(aq+ bq) and the variance is
also a function of aqand bq(Casella & Berger 2002).
We linked all of the beta distributions together, for all
of the parameters, through a single common hyper-
parameter, u, such that aq= uqˆand bq= u(1 − qˆ), for
ˆrepresenting the estimate of r, l, k, and each value
of dj. Without this step we would have had twelve
individual hyperparameters to manipulate (2 hyper-
parameters for each beta distribution). Note that u
can be factored out of both numerator and denomina-
tor of the mean, so the mean is independent of u.
However, the variance is strongly affected by u: the
larger the value of u, the smaller the variance of each
The value of hyperparameter uwas chosen so that
distributions of all 6 model parameters were as con-
sistent as possible with uncertainty in parameters
described in the literature and with estimates from
this and other oil spills (Table 1). Rather than develop
even more complexity to express the uncertainty in
u, we simply set the value of uat 200 after acknowl-
edging that the distribution of Nis sensitive to this
choice. We established the value of uat 200 by
iterative fitting. That is, we varied u, examined the
central 95% interval for each of the variables, and
then readjusted uuntil all 6 probability intervals
closely approximated the 95% interval for parameter
values that we considered plausible for likely alter-
nate parameter assumptions (Table 1). Later, we dou-
bled and halved this value of uto assess the sensiti -
vity of the analysis to our choice of u(and to the
assumed variance of the beta distributions, which u
After setting the value of uat 200, we evaluated the
overall uncertainty in our estimates by making re -
Haney et al.: Bird mortality from Deepwater Horizon. II. Coastal
peated random draws from the beta
distributions of each carcass model
para meter and then calculating Nj
and summing over j. The Monte Carlo
distribution for Nwas developed by
taking 1 million random draws for
each parameter (r, l, h, k, dj), then
devel oping 1 million values of Nby
the repeated use of Eq. (1) and sum-
mation over j.
Exposure probability model
Bird deaths from a spill can also be
estimated using bird density (D), the
proportionate mortality due to oiling
(M), and the spatial extent of the oil
(A). We assume that birds become
contaminated with oil in direct pro-
portion to the product of the spatial
extent of oiling on the water and the
density of seabirds within that spatial
extent. The number of affected birds in contact with
the oil multiplied by the proportionate mortality (bird
deaths/oil-exposed bird) should then approximate N,
the number of bird deaths, so N= ADM (e.g. Wilhelm
et al. 2007, Haney et al. 2014).
Estimating seabird mortality as the product of oil
slick area, seabird density and proportionate mor -
tality due to oiling presumes exposure popu lation
size equal to AD for an exposure period suf ficient
to result in proportionate mortality M. This simple
relation for estimating mortality due to oil exposure
must be modified to account for exposure of new
populations of birds owing to oil slick movement
and to replacement of birds killed by oil exposure
through immigration to the slick area, especially given
the ~3 mo persistence of the Deepwater Horizon
oil slick.
To account for the total population of birds exposed
to oil, we introduce an effective exposure renewal-
period parameter, P, after which the population of
birds exposed to oil is effectively renewed. Denoting
the duration of the oil spill as T, there are T/Psuch
exposure renewal periods. If the area of the oil slick
during the ith exposure renewal period is denoted as
Ai, the number of birds killed during that period is
Ni= AiDiMi, where Diand Miare the bird density
and proportionate mortality during that period. The
total number of birds killed, N, is:
If Diand Miare assumed constant over the duration
of the oil spill T, it can readily be shown that
reduces to A
(T/P), where A
-is the average oil slick
area over the duration of the spill (Haney et al. 2014).
Then the number of birds killed is simply:
Parameter selection
We set value of the period Pto 1 d based in part on
information from satellite imagery for oil spill per -
sistence and recurrence in coastal waters (see the
Supplement for more detailed justifications of para -
meter values). We estimated the average extent of
the surface oil slick (A
-) as 3600 km2for coastal waters
of the northern Gulf of Mexico spill zone based on
methods described above for the carcass sampling
model. To simulate the uncertainty in A
-, this para -
meter was treated as a random variable (in the
Bayesian sense), and assigned a gamma dis tribution
with shape parameter of 36 and a scale parameter of
100 (i.e. mean and standard deviation approx. 3600
and 600 km2d−1, respectively). A gamma distribution
was chosen because it has an inherent lower bound
of zero but is otherwise similar to the normal distribu-
tion with the parameter values chosen. Two standard
deviations constituted ca. 33% of the mean, which
reflects uncertainty associated with the overestima-
ii i
Parameter Assigned Mean of 2.5th−97.5th Median expan-
distribution distribution quantiles sion factor
Carcass sampling model
rBeta 0.057 0.029−0.093 18
lBeta 0.292 0.231−0.356 3.5
kBeta 0.900 0.855−0.938 1.1
d1Beta 0.424 0.357−0.493 2.4
d2Beta 0.251 0.194−0.313 4
d3Beta 0.078 0.045−0.119 13
Exposure probability model
-Gamma 3600 2520−4780 NA
DPoisson 5.8 2−11 NA
MBeta 0.4 0.177−0.659 NA
Table 1. Key features for the probability distributions used to simulate the
number of coastal bird deaths caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The
following parameters constitute the random variables for the carcass sampling
model: r: probability of a bird carcass transported to shore following death;
l: probability of the bird carcass persisting between survey periods; k: tem -
poral fraction of the spill that was sampled; dj: probability of detection of a
carcass (j= 1, 2 or 3 denoting large [500 g], medium [300−499 g] or small
[10−299 g] carcasses, respectively). For the exposure probability model:
-: average oil slick size (km2); D: bird density (birds km−2); M: proportionate
mortality for birds
Mar Ecol Prog Ser 513: 239–252, 2014
tion from pixel distortion and analyst misclassifi -
cation during satellite image as sessment for oil
presence (e.g. Haney et al. 2014).
We assumed that the mean density of birds, D, was
5.8 birds km−2 based on McFarlane & Lester (2005),
who gave a range of 3.6 to 9.4 birds km−2. We
assumed the density of seabirds in the coastal Gulf
of Mexico remained at approximately this level be -
cause of several movement processes available for
repopulating the spill zone. Birds in this area had
flight speeds that facilitated influx to any part of the
spill zone in less than 24 h. Also, aerial foragers (spe-
cies that use surface plunging, aerial dipping, aerial
pursuit, skimming and hydroplaning; Nelson 1979)
accounted for 96% of all species in the coastal sea-
bird community in the Gulf, whereas more sedentary
divers and other primarily surface foragers (a group
mutually exclusive from aerial foragers, and that
included loons, sea ducks, and phalaropes) are a
negligible fraction (Johnson 2011). Fi nally, new birds
arrived continuously into the region during the inci-
dent period via ongoing seasonal migrations. Seabird
abundance in the Gulf of Mexico increases 17% from
spring to summer (Peake 1996), and certain taxa (e.g.
storm-petrels, shearwaters, and some terns) become
4 to 5 times more abundant (Hess & Ribic 2000). This
random variable Dwas assigned a Poisson distribu-
tion (see Clarke et al. 2003, Oppel et al. 2012) with
mean and variance of 5.8 birds km2to reflect the
observed range of seabird density in coastal waters
(McFarlane & Lester 2005).
We selected a value of 0.40 (i.e. 40%) as an esti-
mate of the proportionate mortality, M, in part based
on the observed proportionate mortality in the oiled
birds retrieved during the Deepwater Horizon (justi-
fication detailed in the Supplement). We also consid-
ered the proportionate mortality of aerial seabird
species reported from other oil spills. Proportionate
mortalities from 5% to near 90% from oil exposure
are reported for marine birds, with rates of 22 to 89%
(median 61%) listed for 13 aerially foraging seabird
groups (Camphuysen & Heubeck 2001). This para -
meter was assigned a beta distribution with para -
meters a= 6 and b= 9 (mean of 0.40 and standard
deviation of 0.12) so that most values in the distribu-
tion were below the median value of reported esti-
mates noted above.
Parameter uncertainty
As in the carcass sampling approach, we used a
Bayesian notion of probability to organize and weight
plausible assumptions about alternative para meter
values and to reflect our knowledge of para meter lo-
cation based on available literature and observations
from the Deepwater Horizon spill. A Monte Carlo
distribution for the unknown number of bird deaths
estimated by the exposure probability model was
then developed by taking 1 million rep licates from the
distribution of the parameters (Table 1), then generat-
ing 1 million values using Eq. (3).
Estimates of total bird deaths
The carcass sampling and exposure probability
approaches produced similar estimates for the num-
ber of bird deaths. Dividing the number of recov-
ered carcasses by the estimated expansion factors
(Table 2) gave an estimated 600 000 bird deaths.
Alternatively, assuming an average slick size of
3600 km2, a proportionate mortality of 0.40 bird
deaths per exposed bird, and a bird density of
5.8 birds km−2, we estimated slightly over 8000 bird
deaths d−1, on average. Expanding for all 95 d having
an observed oil slick within 40 km of the coast, the
number of bird deaths was estimated as approx.
800 000.
Notably, with the carcass sampling approach,
expansion factors ranged from slightly under 200 to
over 800 unobserved carcasses per each recovered
carcass (Table 2), depending on size category. The
largest expansion factor was for birds with small
body sizes, the size category with the fewest number
of carcasses found (6.4% of all recoveries). Numbers
of bird deaths in the small body size category were
ultimately estimated to be slightly over 15% of the
The Monte Carlo distribution of the number of bird
deaths from carcass sampling had a mean of 630 000
and a median of 590 000, indicating the distribution
was skewed slightly toward larger values (Fig. 1).
Approx. 95% of the simulated probability covers the
interval from 320 000 to 1 200 000 bird deaths (short-
est interval), whereas 80% of the simulated proba -
bility covers the interval from 390 000 to 910 000.
The probability that the number of bird deaths
exceeded 400 000 is approx. 89%, and the probabil-
ity that the number of bird deaths exceeded 500 000
is approx. 69%, based on the carcass sampling prob-
ability model.
The Monte Carlo distribution for the carcass sam-
pling distribution of bird deaths was sensitive to the
Haney et al.: Bird mortality from Deepwater Horizon. II. Coastal
value of the hyperparameter (u = 200). A change to
this hyperparameter changes the variances of all of
the distributions of the parameters for the carcass
survey together. Halving this hyperparameter to 100
increased the variance, flattened the distribution
somewhat, and shifted the distribution toward larger
values. This change raised the standard deviation of
the rparameter from 0.016 to 0.023, the lparameter
from 0.032 to 0.045, and the kparameter from 0.021
to 0.030. The standard deviation of the Monte Carlo
distribution of bird deaths increased from approx.
220 000 to 400 000, the medians increased from
590 000 to 620 000, and the upper 97.5th percentile
increased from 1.2 million to slightly over 1.8 million.
Halving the hyperparameter again to 50 flattened the
distribution of the total bird deaths even more, with
the 97.5th percentile being greater than 3 million bird
deaths. In contrast, doubling uto 400 reduced the
standard deviation of the rparameter from 0.016
to 0.012, the lparameter from 0.032 to 0.023, the k
parameter from 0.021 to 0.015, and the 97.5th per-
centile of the distribution to 920 000 — values that we
judged to be too small to reflect the actual uncer-
tainty in the parameter values. We concluded that u=
200 produced distributions of the parameters that
were the most consistent with reasonable alternate
assumptions about the parameter values.
The Monte Carlo distribution for the number of
bird deaths using exposure probability was flatter,
and centered over slightly higher values when com-
pared to the distributions of estimates from the car-
cass sampling approach. The median of this distri -
bution was approx. 700 000 whereas the mean was
approx. 800000, again skewed toward larger values
(Fig. 2). The 95% uncertainty interval covers 160 000
to 1 900 000 bird deaths, while the 80% interval
covers 300000 to 1 400000. The probability that the
number of bird deaths exceeded 400 000 is approx.
81%, and the probability that the bird deaths ex -
ceeded 500 000 is approx. 72%.
Influence of carcass size
Relative to their occurrence when surveyed while
alive in coastal Gulf habitats, small-bodied carcasses
were markedly under-represented in the tally of
dead oiled birds found during the Deepwater Hori-
zon spill (Fig. 3). As defined here, small-bodied birds
account for about 34% of the communities in coastal
habitats (Johnson 2011). Conversely, both medium-
and large-bodied birds made up a disproportionately
large proportion of the carcass counts relative to their
occurrence in coastal habitat.
By implementing a searcher parameter (d) specific
to body size, the size distribution of bird-death esti-
mates more closely matched the live proportions
observed in the small-bodied bird category (Fig. 3).
In addition, by using the size-group searcher effi-
ciency parameters we eliminated entirely the dispro-
portionately high representation of large-bodied
birds in the carcass counts relative to their live occur-
rence in coastal Gulf habitats. However, the searcher
efficiency adjustments did not reduce a similar dis-
crepancy in representation seen for the medium size
birds (Fig. 3).
Parameter Large birds Medium birds Small birds
(500 g) (300−499 g) (10−299 g)
pˆ j0.00635 0.00376 0.00117
1/pˆ j157 266 856
95% uncertainty 90−330 150−570 440−2100
interval for 1/pˆ j
ˆj80000 400000 100000
Table 2. Estimates of the combined probability of final
shoreline recovery for large-, medium-, and small-bodied
seabirds (denoted pˆ j) in a carcass-sampling model used to
estimate mortality in coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico
during the Deepwater Horizon spill. The sampling-based
expansion factor for the observed number of carcasses in
the ith size category is the multiplicative inverse (1/pˆ j) of
the probability of recovery for each size class. N
ˆjdenotes a
sampling-based estimate of the number of birds killed for
body size j. Observed carcass counts were 493 for large
birds (j= 1), 1383 for medium birds (j = 2), and 128 for small
birds (j= 3). All estimates are rounded (mortality estimates
do not necessarily sum exactly due to rounding)
Carcass survey-based bird deaths (x10 6)
Frequency (x10 3)
0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0 1.2 1.4
Fig. 1. Monte Carlo distribution (1 million simulation repli-
cates) of the number of coastal bird deaths from the Deep-
water Horizon oil spill based on a carcass survey approach
to estimating total bird mortality. Median for the simulated
distribution = 590 000 bird deaths; mean = 630000
Mar Ecol Prog Ser 513: 239–252, 2014
Our results indicate that bird losses from the Deep-
water Horizon oil spill almost certainly numbered
into the hundreds of thousands in coastal waters of
the northern Gulf of Mexico. Although each estima-
tion approach was different conceptually and used
largely independent data — both showed that the most
likely coastal bird mortality was approx. 700 000.
Carcass sampling model
Carcass sampling expanded approx. 2000 bird
carcasses recovered from the coastal zone into an
estimate of nearly 600 000 bird deaths a very large
statistical extrapolation. Even so, those few observed
carcasses constitute the actual, observable evidence
analyzed in the conventional manner used for avian
mortality assessments after oil spills (e.g. Castege et
al. 2007, Munilla et al. 2011). What was less conven-
tional was using probability to generate numerical
results that include a probability distribution of alter-
nate assumptions about how to statistically expand
such carcass counts to account for realistic processes
that re duced the numbers recovered from shoreline
The counts of recovered carcasses are usually far
less than the number of birds killed by an oil spill
(Seys et al. 2001, Ford 2006). Low carcass counts or
small recovery probabilities alone do not necessarily
lead to bias. However, in this case, because carcass
recovery was low and expansion factors were large,
any source of bias would be highly leveraged. For
example, if some unmeasured process (e.g. carcass
burning) removed even a small number of carcasses
en route to shore, each missing carcass would create
bias in our estimate proportional to the large expan-
sion factors.
We have tried to understand and account for all
recovery processes. On balance we suspect that we
were more likely to have underestimated than to
have overestimated bird mortality. Nevertheless, if
birds tended to fly towards coastlines after exposure,
and then later died near or on shore, then we would
have underestimated rand overestimated mortality.
If the actual decline of seabird density with distance
from shore is better described as a negative exponen-
tial function, then our assumption of a linear decline
also would lead to overestimation of mortality.
Cleanup tactics during spill response may have led
to underestimation by intercepting and destroying
carcasses before they could be retrieved. Between
28 April and 19 July 2010, 376 controlled burns at sea
consumed 3.5 to 4.9 × 107l of oil, a volume approxi-
mately equivalent to one Exxon Valdez spill. Although
burns were avoided if live apex predators were pres-
ent (Allen et al. 2011), floating carcasses would have
been destroyed since ignitions took place where con-
vergences had concentrated buoyant material (FISG
2010). Skimming operations removed half of the oil
volume removed by burning (FISG 2010), which may
also have removed carcasses.
Carcass loss at sea from biological factors also
reduces shoreline deposition. Bird consumption by
tiger sharks Galeocerdo cuvier or other higher tro -
phic-level consumers (Kaufman 2012) in the Gulf
exacerbates carcass loss (Wiese 2003). Such losses
Exposure probability-based bird deaths (x10 6)
Frequency (x10 3)
0 0.5 1.0 1.5 2.0 2.5
Fig. 2. Monte Carlo distribution (1 million simulation repli-
cates) of the number of coastal bird deaths from the Deep-
water Horizon oil spill based on an exposure probability
model over 95 d. Median number of bird deaths 700 000
Fig. 3. Comparison of the proportions of birds that were sur-
veyed live in coastal Gulf habitat (Johnson 2011) to the pro-
portions recovered as carcasses and estimated killed during
the Deepwater Horizon spill. Bird size categories: small:
10−299 g; medium: 300−499 g; large: 500 g
Haney et al.: Bird mortality from Deepwater Horizon. II. Coastal
lower the estimate of mortality if, as in this study, no
correction is applied for in toto ingestion of seabird
Our estimate of 5.7% probability for carcass trans-
port to shorelines is lower than values reported in
most previous studies. Piatt & Ford (1996) reported a
probability of 12%. A summary by Munilla et al.
(2011) gave a mean of 17.1% based on 37 experimen-
tal studies with 7040 combined block and carcass
releases. Block recoveries overstate deposition as
blocks do not decompose and weather like carcasses
(Wiese & Jones 2001). Using a block-to-carcass cor-
rection provided by Munilla et al. (2011), the differ-
ence between values from the meta-analysis above
and our study narrows to 11.2% versus 5.7%, respec-
tively. Our estimate of carcass deposition was never-
theless higher than reported for another Atlantic
Ocean oil spill (as low as 0.8% in the Prestige spill;
Castege et al. 2007).
Although we describe the carcass movement with a
simple model, the actual movement process was
quite complex. Early in the spill, oil was steered away
from the coast (Dietrich et al. 2012). Response author-
ities opened locks on Mississippi River canals to re -
direct the discharge and prevent or delay Deepwater
Horizon oil from reaching the ecologically fragile
coastal marshes. Under weak winds and effects of
sea surface slope, high buoyancy-driven outflow
(Falcini et al. 2012) blocked much of the surface oil
from reaching most Gulf shorelines until late May
2010. Except along the immediate shoreline, wind
forcing played a negligible role in large-scale oil
transport (Huntley et al. 2011) until early July when
Tropical Storm Alex transited the southern Gulf
(Dietrich et al. 2012, Le Hénaff et al. 2012). Oil was
then driven shoreward by the storm surge (Pugliese
Carratelli et al. 2011). The extent of oiled shoreline
subsequently tripled (Boufadel et al. 2014), and
recovery of bird carcasses accelerated just before the
well was capped (Belanger et al. 2010).
We assumed that all shorelines affected by this spill
were searched (i.e. h= 1.00). Responders searched
6841 km of the Gulf’s beach, wetland, and man-made
shorelines during the Deepwater Horizon incident,
and some oiling was observed on 1705 km (Owens et
al. 2011a,b). If some shorelines were missed, or if
they received less attention by searchers, both of
which seem likely given the geographic extent of the
Deepwater Horizon spill and the complexity of shore-
lines, then fewer carcasses would be recovered, ulti-
mately leading to an underestimate of the bird losses.
Our assumed daily carcass persistence proportions
of ~50% on beaches the first few days after deposi-
tion is similar to values reported from other oil spills.
Nevertheless, as few as 10% of carcasses may
remain 2 to 4 d after reaching shore (Ford 2006, Byrd
et al. 2009, Ford & Zafonte 2009). Due to the Gulf’s
many scavengers (e.g. gulls, crows, raptors, raccoons,
mink, crabs), shoreline persistence may have been
even lower than we assumed. Given search intervals
by Deepwater Horizon responders that ranged up to
12 d (USDOI 2011), our assumed 3 d interval would,
at least on some occasions, lead to an overestimate of
carcass persistence, ultimately under estimating bird
deaths. Carcass persistence was not derived in situ,
however, so this parameter had to be approximated
from values based on previous oil spills.
Exposure probability model
Despite a simpler conceptual approach and fewer
parameters, the exposure probability model gave an
even wider uncertainty interval for the bird deaths
estimated in coastal waters (Fig. 2). Here again, we
may have made incorrect assumptions about the val-
ues of the parameters that led to estimates that erred
in either direction.
We assumed that 60% of coastal birds exposed to
Deepwater Horizon oil avoided a lethal dosage. The
lethal exposure proportion we used falls near the
lower end of the interval of values used to character-
ize bird mortality from other oil spills (e.g. 23 to
100%; WIW 2001, Robertson et al. 2006, Wilhelm et
al. 2007, Fifield et al. 2009). Assuming that warm
Gulf waters may be less likely to induce thermoregu-
latory stress from exposure, we projected that all live
oiled birds survived (e.g. see Selman et al. 2012). In
cooler seas, live oiled birds are typically included in
the tally of mortality (cf. Page et al. 1990, Castege et
al. 2007, Munilla et al. 2011). To the extent that we
underestimated the lethal dose, we would have
underestimated the total bird deaths with the expo-
sure probability approach. We could not, for exam-
ple, consider all of the ways that oil could lead to
mortality, such as via ingestion and inhalation. Any
error in Eq. (3) would propagate linearly. If, for exam-
ple, 60% of exposed birds died rather than our
assumed 40%, then our estimate of total mortality
would underestimate by a factor of 60/40 or 1.5.
We note that few large coastal spills have occurred
in warm subtropical seas where the seabird commu-
nities comprise high proportions of aerially foraging
species. Future study aimed at documenting seabird
exposure and behavior around oil slicks in warm
oceans are needed (e.g. see Watson et al. 2009).
Mar Ecol Prog Ser 513: 239–252, 2014
Delayed mortality of oiled birds may have occurred
at a higher rate than what we assumed.
We can think of several ways we could have
over estimated the bird mortality through errors in
measurement, incorrect assumptions, or oversimplifi-
cation. The most obvious potential source for overes-
timate might be our assumption that the bird density
returned to a baseline level of 5.8 birds km−2 due to
emigration and bird flux after a period of just 1 d (but
see Fifield et al. 2009). Numbers of birds subject to
risk at the time of a spill are often hard to quantify for
assessments of spill mortality (e.g. French McCay &
Rowe 2004). The bird density that we used for coastal
Gulf waters was typical for seasons when the Deep-
water Horizon incident occurred (McFarlane &
Lester 2005), although it was derived from outside
the immediate spill zone. We attempted to account
for uncertainty in this parameter with an assigned
probability distribution, but we have no way to assess
our success at estimating the background density or
the time it took after mortality for the density to
return to the background level because there are no
alternative estimates for bird density readily avail-
Most importantly, due to limits imposed by image
coverage or sensor sensitivity (Leifer et al. 2012,
Lindsley & Long 2012) and high application of chem-
ical dispersants (e.g. Allan et al. 2012), satellite delin-
eation of the exposure risk presented to birds is
incomplete (Haney et al. 2014). Underestimation of
contamination risk on the water would also lead to
underestimation bias in the bird mortality using the
exposure probability approach.
Importance of body size
Our study is among very few to make substantial
adjustments to mortality estimation based on carcass
size following a large marine oil spill. An adjustment
for bird body size was used in the relatively small MV
Kure spill (1.7 × 104l) in Humboldt Bay, California
(Ford et al. 2013). Smaller birds are more difficult
to detect under field conditions, whether alive (Bar-
braud & Thiebot 2009) or dead (Smallwood 2007).
Such adjustments are necessary to account for the
large disparity observed between relatively low pro-
portions of small bodied carcasses recovered com-
pared with live small birds detected in Gulf surveys
(Fig. 3).
Proportionate mortalities from oil spills do vary by
body size (Page et al. 1990), although differences
among species are not well understood (Evans &
Keijl 1993). Exposures to very small oil dosages cause
loss of plumage integrity (O’Hara & Morandin 2010),
lowering insulation and raising mortality (Jenssen
1994). Because thermal conductance scales allomet-
rically to body size (Aschoff 1981), insulation is more
easily compromised in smaller-bodied species, and
a greater representation of small birds might be
expected in the tally of mortality. Instead, however,
only 128 small-bodied carcasses were retrieved dur-
ing the Deepwater Horizon spill (6.4% of the total),
despite smaller birds making up a third of avian com-
munities in the coastal Gulf (Johnson 2011).
Small-bodied birds may have beach persistence
times only 5 to 13% those of large- and medium-bod-
ied birds (Seys et al. 2001), as small birds are more
readily carried off by scavengers (Ford & Zafonte
2009, Ponce et al. 2010), whereas large, heavy birds
must usually be scavenged in situ. In addition,
smaller bird carcasses can be scavenged by con-
sumers having a wider range of body sizes, including
small-bodied predators. Without correcting for body-
size, especially where bird communities contain a
large proportion of small-bodied birds as in the Gulf
of Mexico (Johnson 2011), bird losses in marine oil
spills could be substantially underestimated.
Ecological implications from spill mortality
We focused solely on near-term, acute mortality
from the Deepwater Horizon spill, even though ob -
servations of oiled birds continued for at least 1 yr
(Henkel et al. 2012). We did not include estimates for
indirect (Velando et al. 2005) or chronic population
effects (Irons et al. 2000), either of which can increase
the avian mortality (Pérez et al. 2008). For example,
oil cleanup and other response activities reduce bird
survival (Burger & Tsipoura 1998).
Despite a focus here on near-term effects, high
avian mortality in the Deepwater Horizon spill likely
had population-level repercussions. We estimated
mor tality in 4 seabird species using the size-specific
expansion factors (1/pjlisted in Table 2) and numbers
of carcasses found for that species (listed in Supple-
ment 1). Projected losses reached or exceeded 24 000
birds in all 4 species and reached 232 000 for laugh-
ing gulls (Leu cophaeus atricilla, Table 3). In 3 species,
estimated losses reached or exceeded 12% of the
total population estimated present in the northern
Gulf of Mexico.
Mortality of laughing gulls was ~32% of the regional
Gulf population (Table 3). National Audubon Society
Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data from Florida, Ala-
Haney et al.: Bird mortality from Deepwater Horizon. II. Coastal
bama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas (NAS 2010)
corroborate this decline. CBC data reveal that after
the Deepwater Horizon incident, laughing gulls in
the Gulf region declined by 61 to 64% between win-
ter 2010 and winters 2011, 2012, and 2013. Given
adequate coverage and sample sizes (only for laugh-
ing gull did CBC survey effort exceed 10 birds h−1
among the 4 species examined), the NAS CBC
could provide an alternative to evaluate pop ulation-
level impacts from large marine oil spills in North
In addition to carcass sampling and exposure prob-
ability models, differences in breeding colony atten-
dance before and after a spill are another means to
corroborate avian mortality (e.g. Piatt & Ford 1996).
Without due consideration of the population age
class and vital rates affected (Votier et al. 2008), oil
spill impacts to seabirds can be masked. We there-
fore encourage more research into the demographic
consequences to the Gulf's coastal birds from this
large marine spill.
Given both its chronic and acute characteristics,
the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a major pertur-
bation to the northern Gulf of Mexico (Peterson et al.
2012). Our estimates do not address delayed mortal-
ity from changes to ecosystem function (e.g. Peterson
2001) or consequences to food webs from reductions
in marine predators caused by this oil spill. Both top-
ics await further study.
Acknowledgements. This study was funded jointly by The
Murray Firm and by Cossich, Sumich, Parsiola and Taylor
LLC. Findings in this manuscript reflect those of the
authors only; interpretations do not reflect positions that
may be held by any organization, entity, or other interest.
All content analyzed and reported here was available in
the public domain. No data, information, do cuments, find-
ings or any other proprietary content protected by any
confidentiality restriction or agreement, including those
pertaining to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment
conducted for the Deepwater Horizon Mississippi Canyon
252 oil spill under 61 Fed. Reg. 440, the Oil Pollution Act
of 1990, were consulted or otherwise used in preparation
of this manuscript. We thank Steven C. Heinl, Charles H.
Pe terson, Terrance J. Quinn II, Robert B. Spies, and 4
anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier ver-
sions of this paper. Xinxian Zhang provided advice on sta-
tistical computing. Public access to historical data from the
Christmas Bird Count is provided courtesy of the National
Audubon Society and its many volunteer contributors (see
www.christmasbirdcount. org).
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Editorial responsibility: Jacob González-Solís,
Barcelona, Spain
Submitted: October 16, 2013; Accepted: April 30, 2014
Proofs received from author(s): September 30, 2014
... This can in turn lead to seabirds being forced to leave cold waters, which can result in dehydration and mobilization of energy stores, and birds can lose up to 13% of their body mass with a week (Morant, Cooper, & Randall, 1981). Moreover, birds that survive may also try to preen oil off, resulting in significant ingestion and leading to a series of oil-induced diseases, such as aspergillosis, cachexia, hemolytic anemia, ulceration of the stomach, and immunosuppressant effects Haney, Geiger, & Short, 2014). ...
... The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico has illustrated how oil platforms can also result in large-scale oil spills. The 2010 oil spill released ~4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, equivalent to eight Exxon Valdez spills (Haney et al., 2014). The slick covered over 100,000 km 2 , affected large areas of wetland habitat, and entered the nearshore planktonic food web. ...
... The slick covered over 100,000 km 2 , affected large areas of wetland habitat, and entered the nearshore planktonic food web. Seabird mortality estimates range from 600,000 to 800,000, with the main casualties being Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla), Royal Terns (Thalasseus maximus), Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus), and Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) (Haney et al., 2014). ...
... Death tolls on the order of thousands of birds are relatively common for marine oil spills, but in extreme cases, hundreds of thousands of birds can be killed (Burger, 1993;Haney et al., 2014;Munilla et al., 2011;Piatt et al., 1990). Each individual death can be traced back to one or more negative effects of oiling, such as organ or body system failure due to toxicity, severe dehydration, or starvation (Balseiro et al., 2005;Cunningham et al., 2017;Jenssen, 1994;Oka and Okuyama, 2000). ...
... Over the past century, oil spills have killed millions of aquatic birds and sublethally injured many others (Burger, 1993;Haney et al., 2014;Munilla et al., 2011;Piatt et al., 1990). Using a mallard-like dabbling duck as a model organism, we used energetics modeling to explore a single oiling-related pathway that can lead to death and injury: thermoregulatory consequences of the oiling of a bird's feathers. ...
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Oil spills can inflict mortality and injury on bird populations; many of these deaths involve starvation resulting from thermoregulatory costs incurred by oiling of birds’ feathers. However, the fates and responses of sublethally oiled birds are poorly known. Due to this knowledge gap and the potential for birds to die far from the spill site, resource risk and injury assessors need tools to make informed estimates for delayed deaths and lost reproductive capacity in these birds. Focusing on the thermoregulatory cost of oiled feathers, we present a model addressing one facet of the effects of sublethal oiling on birds. Using mallard-like ducks as a model organism, we combined values from previous laboratory studies of oiled birds with a modified version of an existing temperature-influenced avian migration energetics model. Using this model, we examined the potential effects of oiling on general migration patterns, changes in energetic gains required to compensate for oiling, and starvation. We assessed all metrics across multiple oiling severities; we assessed starvation across both oiling severity and body condition. Median estimates for delays in spring migration were one to two months for trace and lightly oiled birds, and we predicted arrested spring migration in moderately oiled birds. Median estimates of required increases in energetic gains to offset costs of increased thermoregulation ranged from 20.3% to 88.6% depending on severity of oiling. We predicted starvation within four weeks for most combinations of oiling severity and body condition at the median predicted minimum wintering temperature of unoiled birds (-4.9°C). However, at the average winter temperature of the southernmost model latitude (10.8°C), we predicted only moderately oiled birds in less-than-excellent body condition had the potential to starve within a four-week time frame. Due to the potential for even trace oiling to delay spring migration and decrease body condition, the thermoregulatory costs of sublethal oiling during spring migration could reduce a bird's reproductive capacity. Future research integrating this initial energetics-based model into a spatially explicit, population scale migration model could provide additional insight into the potential effects of sublethal oiling on reproduction and survival. Such an integrated model could strengthen risk predictions and injury assessments for birds subjected to sublethal oiling.
... Releases into marine and coastal systems are of particular concern due to the ability of spilled oil to travel long distances, remain in the environment for extended periods of time, exhibit stochastic dispersal patterns, and cause an array of primary and secondary effects to exposed individuals at even comparatively small concentrations (Maggini et al. 2017, Monson et al. 2000, North et al. 2011, Powers et al. 2013. For example, spilled oil can induce negative fitness effects, both lethal (Haney et al. 2014) and sublethal (Fallon et al. 2018), on contaminated individuals and alter populations at the regional scale long after the spill has occurred (Peterson et al. 2003, Votier et al. 2005). ...
... Extensive or sensitively-located spills impacting high-use coastal habitat have been shown to have detrimental effects above the individual level, possibly contributing to regional declines for effected species (Carter et al. 2003, Piatt & Anderson 1996, Velando et al. 2005. This may be especially true for a species like brown pelicans, one of the seabird species most heavily impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon event (Haney et al. 2014). ...
... Although the rate of loss has slowed in recent years (Entwistle et al., 2018;Murray et al., 2022), coastal wetlands continue to be vulnerable to disturbance from development, storm events, and offshore oil spills (Morton and Barras, 2011;Turner et al., 2016;Hu et al., 2017). Oil spills have received extensive public attention, with acute and long-term effects across all trophic levels, from plants and insects to iconic megafauna (McCall and Pennings, 2012;Silliman et al., 2012;Haney et al., 2014;Lin et al., 2016;Zengel et al., 2016;Zengel et al., 2022). These highly visible impacts make it critical for state management agencies to have robust, multifaceted, and effective oil spill response plans that address ecosystem recovery across multiple trophic levels (French McCay and Rowe, 2003). ...
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Compensatory wetland restoration is a critical component of holistic, ecosystem-level oil spill response strategies. An important goal of restoration is to rehabilitate food webs in impacted areas, but faunal assemblages and trophic dynamics are rarely included in post-restoration monitoring or assessments of success. Different approaches to wetland restoration, including variations in construction technique, may influence faunal recovery and trophic interactions. To explore these dynamics, we compared emergent plant communities, terrestrial arthropod assemblages, and trophic interactions in restored emergent marshes that were constructed in terrace and mound configurations and in reference areas in the Lower Neches Wildlife Management Area (Texas, United States). Plant community composition differed among all habitat types, with higher diversity on terraces and in reference marshes. Terrestrial arthropod abundance was similar among habitat types, but species composition was distinctly different among habitat types, especially at the herbivore level, where four of the eight herbivore species were found in either reference or restored sites, but not in both habitat types. Herbivores (primarily beetles and planthoppers) were more abundant than detritivores (midges and flies) in all habitat types. Predator (web-building and hunting spiders) abundance and species identity were similar among habitat types. Based on stable isotope analysis, trophic relationships differed among mounds, terraces, and reference areas. Herbivore diets were more variable at the reference sites than in either restored habitat type, aligning with higher plant diversity in reference areas. In contrast, detritivore diets were more variable at restored sites, where they were likely consuming food sources such as benthic algae or sediment organic matter. Predator diets were primarily comprised of herbivores in reference areas and detritivores in restored habitats. Overall, the restoration approaches supported abundant terrestrial arthropod assemblages, but species composition was different. In addition, trophic relationships differed between restored and reference areas, in part due to unique plant species assemblages at restored and reference sites. These results suggest that ecosystem restoration strategies that introduce geomorphological heterogeneity and plant diversity are more likely to support a diverse array of species and functions.
... Responses to these stressors can range from long-term and widespread effects to shorterterm and localized effects and can affect populations, sub-populations and/or individuals. At the individual level, focus is often placed on lethal effects, particularly following acute and extreme stressors such as oil spills, pollution events or severe weather events (Loss et al., 2012;Haney et al., 2014a). Sublethal effects are, however, also relevant and can include but are not limited to changes in behavior, movement or reproductive ecology (Peréz et al., 2010;Eggert and Jodice, 2008;Wilkinson et al., 2019). ...
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The northern Gulf of Mexico supports a diverse community of nearshore seabirds during both breeding and nonbreeding periods of the annual cycle and is also a highly industrialized marine ecosystem with substantial levels of oil and gas development particularly in the west and central regions. Stakeholders in the region often assess risk to species of interest based on these differing levels of development. We collected blood samples from 81 adult and 35 chick eastern brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis) from 10 colonies across the northern Gulf of Mexico and used these to establish baseline values for hematology and blood biochemistry. We assessed the potential influence of body condition, sex and home range size on hematology and blood biochemistry. We also assessed potential influences of oil and gas activity by considering differing levels of oil and gas development that occur regionally throughout the study area. Although blood analyte concentrations of adults and chicks were often associated with these regional differences, the pattern we observed was not entirely consistent with the differing levels of oil and gas activity across the Gulf, suggesting that regional levels of oil and gas activity around breeding sites may not be the primary drivers of hematology and blood biochemistry. We note that baseline values or reference intervals are not available for other nearshore seabirds that breed in the northern Gulf. Given that exposure and risk may differ among this suite of species based on diet, foraging strategies and life history strategies, similar assessments and monitoring may be warranted.
... As birds frantically preen their feathers to restore their natural protections, they often swallow oil, which can severely damage their internal organs and lead to death. The best estimate of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is that it killed 250,000 seabirds (Carson et al., 1992;Haney et al., 2014). Figures 2(a)-(c) clearly shows the degree of impacts on birds after being oiled during oil spill incident. ...
... Our observations constitute the first known instance of Storks being smeared by animal and plant oil due to improper waste management. More infamous examples of birds being impacted negatively by oil include the various waterbirds and sea birds affected from oil spills worldwide [10][11][12], until now the problem was only touching the sea birds. Aghababyan Currently, it is not yet definitely determined, what are the agents, which are smearing the Storks. ...
The novelty threat to White Storks Ciconia ciconia in Armenia was investigated in 33 villages of Ararat Plain in 2019-2021. The Storks were becoming smeared with the undetermined agent of plant oil and/or fish fat nature, which was impeding their flying abilities. In 2019 smeared Storks were found in five villages, with total number of 125 smeared nestlings and 84 smeared adult storks. In 2020 smeared Storks were found in 15 villages, in 95 nests, totaling to 285 smeared nestlings and 192 smeared adults. In 2021 smeared Storks were found in 28 villages, in 178 nests, totaling to 534 smeared nestlings and 356 smeared adults. Average percent of the polluted nestlings grew from 5% in 2019 to 21% in 2020 (t=3.62, df=32, p<0.001), and then to 58% in 2021 (t=7.17, df=32, p<0.05). The most likely causes of environmental pollution and Storks’ smearing are Sturgeon farms and producers of canned food. Current legislation provides with necessary tools to deal with possible polluters; however there is a need to enforce the laws. Therefore, a number of short-term and long-term measures are suggested to improve the situation.
Common Loons (Gavia immer) wintering in watercourses of Barataria Bay, in coastal Louisiana were sampled in 2011–2014 following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Blood samples were analyzed for stable isotope ratios of carbon, nitrogen and sulfur as proxies for habitat use and diet in order to expand our understanding of the trophic position of wintering loons. The δ¹³C and δ ³⁴S values indicated that these Common Loons feed in coastal estuarine habitats. Trophic position was estimated indirectly by comparing loon stable isotope ratios with those of Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), a known piscivore, sampled concurrently in 2014. The isotopic signatures of the two species were not significantly different; this is consistent with the hypothesis that both species foraged primarily in coastal estuarine habitats and mainly as piscivores. No significant differences were found between subadult and adult Common Loons with respect to isotopic signatures, suggesting similar habitat usage and diet. Adults weighed more and were in better body condition than subadults. Stable isotope composition and body condition were not significantly related. Using a parallel data set of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH, an indicator or oil contamination) in the blood of the same loons, there was no significant relationship between PAH contamination and stable isotopic composition. Therefore, PAH-contamination could not be linked to a distinctive foraging habitat or diet.
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A literature review of bioaccumulation and biotransformation of organic chemicals in birds was undertaken, aiming to support scoping and prioritization of future research. The objectives were to characterize available bioaccumulation/biotransformation data, identify knowledge gaps, determine how extant data can be used, and explore the strategy and steps forward. An intermediate approach balanced between expediency and rigor was taken given the vastness of the literature. Following a critical review of > 500 peer-reviewed studies, > 25,000 data entries and 2 million information bytes were compiled on > 700 organic compounds for ~ 320 wild species and 60 domestic breeds of birds. These data were organized into themed databases on bioaccumulation and biotransformation , field survey , microsomal enzyme activity , metabolic pathway , and bird taxonomy and diet . Significant data gaps were identified in all databases at multiple levels. Biotransformation characterization was largely fragmented over metabolite/pathway identification and characterization of enzyme activity or biotransformation kinetics. Limited biotransformation kinetic data constrained development of an avian biotransformation model. A substantial shortage of in vivo biotransformation kinetics has been observed as most reported rate constants were derived in vitro. No metric comprehensively captured all key contaminant classes or chemical groups to support broad-scope modeling of bioaccumulation or biotransformation. However, metrics such as biota-feed accumulation factor, maximum transfer factor, and total elimination rate constant were more readily usable for modeling or benchmarking than other reviewed parameters. Analysis demonstrated the lack of bioaccumulation/biotransformation characterization of shorebirds, seabirds, and raptors. In the study of bioaccumulation and biotransformation of organic chemicals in birds, this review revealed the need for greater chemical and avian species diversity, chemical measurements in environmental media, basic biometrics and exposure conditions, multiple tissues/matrices sampling, and further exploration on biotransformation. Limitations of classical bioaccumulation metrics and current research strategies used in bird studies were also discussed. Forward-looking research strategies were proposed: adopting a chemical roadmap for future investigations, integrating existing biomonitoring data, gap-filling with non-testing approaches, improving data reporting practices, expanding field sampling scopes, bridging existing models and theories, exploring biotransformation via avian genomics, and establishing an online data repository.
Graphene oxide (GO) is considered as a new type of self‐assembly membrane material. However, it suffering from a low steady state filtration flux as well as unstable performance, resulting in restriction of its practical applications. For this reason, this study aimed to incorporate GO into layered double hydroxides (LDHs), with double‐layer hydrophilic transport channels and positively charged surface at different weight ratio (i.e. 5:1, 3:1, 1:1, 1:3, and 1:5) through electrostatic self‐assembly method. The developed GO-Mg/Al/Zn-LDH was then coated on the stainless-steel mesh combined with chitosan (CS) to obtain a stable and high‐flux hydrophilic and underwater superoleophobic membrane. The morphology of layer by layer (LBL) hybrid mesh were fully characterized by XRD, EDS, and SEM techniques, and examined for removal of heavy crude oil from water surfaces which showed a higher than 99.5% separation efficiency (ɳ%) and water flux of ∼160222 ± 102 Lm²h⁻¹ under gravity-driven force. Moreover, the exceptional mechanical/chemical stability effective separation, high water flux, reusability, and excellent superhydrophilicity, LBL hybrid mesh can be considered as a promising renewable membrane for oily water remediation.
Full-text available
Seabird mortality resulting from oil spills is generally assessed based on the number of birds lost at sea. Drift blocks we often employed to determine the loss at sea and because blocks do not sink, but seabird carcasses do, it is essential to determine accurate sinking rates of seabird carcasses to correctly interpret onshore drift block recoveries. To quantify sinking rates of seabird carcasses, to determine possible differences between oiled and unoiled birds, and to investigate the importance of scavenging, I conducted an experiment in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, with 54 intact, but previously frozen murres (Uria spp.), the most common victims in oil spills in the Northern Hemisphere. Birds were randomly assigned to clean, lightly oiled (25% of body oiled) or heavily oiled (50% body oiled) categories. Twelve birds of each oiling category were placed into a floating three-chambered wooden-framed pen. The remaining birds were placed in a mesh-screened pen on the wharf. After nine days, randomly assigned carcasses from the floating pen and all birds on land, were opened to simulate partial scavenging. After 19 days, all flesh and muscles were removed from remaining birds to simulate complete scavenging. Changes in the buoyancy of carcasses were determined daily by measuring the amount of added mass (in 5 g increments) necessary to sink them (Burger 1991, cited in Burger and Fry 1993). On average, carcasses remained afloat 8.2 ± 1.0 d (95% C.I. 6.2 - 10.3), with no difference between oiled and unoiled, either floating or on land. Carcasses on land retained buoyancy significantly longer and only 1 carcass sank with the 24 d period. Buoyancy loss was best described by a logistic time-dependent function. When carcasses were scavenged, buoyancy loss increased exponentially. Based on these results, it appears that backwash and subsequent sinking of stranded carcasses is likely not a significant mechanism of carcasses removal from beaches. I recommend using a 10-14 d estimate for the length of time that murres and other auks remain afloat at sea, and to use a time-dependent logistic function to estimate the proportion of birds lost at sea. It appears that most estimates of seabird mortality due to spilled oil based on drift block experiments may be too low because onshore block recoveries relevant to seabird carcasses have been over-estimated.
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Seabird mortality from large oil spills and chronic oil pollution is often significant. Total mortality estimates are derived from counts of dead birds that wash ashore and are corrected for numbers lost at sea. Past attempts to estimate proportion of birds that die at sea and wash ashore have included several experiments using carcasses and different types of wooden drift blocks. Results varied greatly depending on environmental conditions and distance from shore where blocks or carcasses were released. Wind seemed to be the predominant factor determining movement over large distances, whereas tidal currents influenced deposition on specific beaches. Determining timing and location of arrival of dead birds on beaches are crucial for accurate mortality estimates. Drift experiments using beached birds that have already drifted at sea for an undetermined length of time are inaccurate due to natural buoyancy loss and decomposition. To determine accuracy of drift block designs used in the past, we compared drift characteristics and patterns between four drift block designs and fresh murre (Uria spp.) carcasses. Our experiments showed that drift blocks used in the past have none of the drift characteristics of dead seabirds, because they have much larger areas exposed to wind and hence drift much faster and farther than murre carcasses. Past mortality estimates using those blocks are therefore doubtful. The drift block design that most accurately mimicked murre carcass drift during our experiments was a 9 × 9 × 14.5 cm wooden block with a 450 gram steel weight that adjusts buoyancy and area exposed to the wind. We propose that in areas where murres are predominant victims of oil spills, that block design be used for all future estimates of oiled seabird mortality.
Models were developed to describe carcass deposition on beaches and carcass loss at sea in order to estimate the number of birds killed by the Apex Houston oil spill. At least 3364 debilitated live oiled birds, primarily common murres Uria aalge, were collected from beaches for cleaning and rehabilitation. An additional 5880 dead oiled birds, primarily common murres and rhinoceros auklets Cerorhinca monocerata, washed ashore. Only 87.1% of 7488 common murres, 78.6% of 1566 rhinoceros auklets, and 82.8% of 169 Cassin's auklets Ptychoramphus aleuticus debilitated or killed by oil were determined to have reached shore. Overall, at least 10 577 birds of 26 species were debilitated or killed including in addition to the above. -from Authors
The 3662 recovery records for Laughing Gulls (Larus atriczlla) banded in North America from 1924 to 1991 were analyzed to determine migration and dispersal patterns for Northeast (Maine to Virginia) and Gulf Coast (west coast of Florida to Texas) populations. Autumn migration for Northeast Laughing Gulls was initiated in October. Northeast Laughing Gulls migrated greater distances and were recovered farther south during winter than Gulf Coast gulls. Significantly more Gulf Coast Laughing Gulls wintered along the Gulf Coast than did Northeast Laughing Gulls. In contrast, significantly more Northeast Laughing Gulls wintered in Central and South America. Adult Laughing Gulls returned to breeding areas between March and May. Sixty-four percent of adult recoveries during subsequent breeding seasons were within 50 km of their natal banding locations. Significantly more Laughing Gulls were recovered north of their natal banding location than south during subsequent breeding seasons. Autumn dispersal of hatching-year Laughing Gulls was characterized by northward movements before migration. There was little interchange between Northeast and Gulf Coast populations.
An important rationale for beached bird monitoring program is that they provide data that are useful in assessing oil spill injuries to seabirds. A common application of these data has been to help measure the extent to which background carcass deposition rates are elevated by an oil spill incident. Ideally, monitoring data can be used to establish a baseline of carcass deposition which, when subtracted from the deposition rate observed during a spill response, provides an estimate of the number of bird recoveries attributable to the oil spill. However, beach monitoring surveys are generally much less frequent than oil spill response surveys, resulting in much higher estimates of the deposition rate per survey. The usefulness of beach monitoring data in oil spill damage assessment could be increased by making the search protocols of monitoring programs and oil spill response agencies more directly comparable. Such standardization would entail conducting some searches at closely spaced intervals. More frequent visits to the same beach would also make possible the estimation of carcass persistence rates and searcher efficiency rates, which would be useful for both oil spill damage assessment and interpretation of beached bird monitoring data.
The age at which female gulls first reproduce is poorly documented. We examined plumage and reproductive organs of Laughing Gulls (Larus atricilla) collected from May-August 2000-2001 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, to determine age-specific reproductive effort. Each gull was classified as one year old (hatched in previous year), two years old, or ≥3 years old on the basis of color patterns of the hood and tail feathers and fifth primary flight feather. For females, each ovary was examined to determine if postovulatory follicles were present. In 2000 and 2001, the first gulls with postovulatory follicles were recorded on 15 and 18 May, respectively. Overall, 54% of the 211 two-year-old female Laughing Gulls collected during June-August showed evidence of egg laying compared to 88% of the 320 gulls ≥3 years old. None of the 50 one-year-old females examined showed evidence of egg laying. Although a lower proportion of two-year-old females laid eggs compared to older gulls, we found no difference (P ≥ 0.06) in mean number of postovulatory follicles or in frequency distribution of numbers of postovulatory follicles for the two age classes for those birds that did lay eggs. Within each sex, mean body mass increased (P < 0.05) with age. Mean left testis length of males increased (P < 0.05) with age. Our findings clearly established that two-year-old female Laughing Gulls can contribute significantly to the annual reproductive effort and that some adult (≥3 years old) females did not lay eggs.