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Wildlife and the Gulf Oil Spill

How is the major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico affecting wildlife?

How do people help the affected animals?

Is there anything we can do?

Internation Bird Rescue

These are questions you and your students are likely to be asking. Here we have collected some resources to answer them.

First, if you need guidance about how best to share information with students, see "How to Talk with Kids About the Gulf Oil Spill," a guide for parents and teachers.

How does an oil spill affect wildlife?

For younger students, this page on the Ranger Rick website provides an overview of the effects of an oil spill and how wildlife rescuers help various kinds of animals.

For older students, this page from National Wildlife magazine offers more detailed information about the potential impacts on wildlife.

Oil spills are especially dangerous for birds. Even a small amount of oil can cause big problems for both seabirds and wading birds. Their feathers become matted and can no longer insulate them from cold, they become less buoyant, and they ingest oil when they try to clean themselves.

How do people help affected birds?

Professionals and trained volunteers take care of oiled birds at treatment facilities set up just for this purpose. Here is what happens when a bird arrives for treatment.

  • First, the bird gets a full health exam. People check its weight and temperature and do a blood test to find out its condition.
  • The next step is to give the bird a re-hydration solution to get its system back in balance.
  • Before the bird is washed, it must be healthy and strong enough to withstand the treatment. It rests in a warm, quiet place until the veterinarian says it is ready.
  • To clean the oil from the bird’s feathers, the washing crew uses warm water and Dawn dish washing detergent. Washing a large bird can take up to 300 gallons of water. As the water in the first tub gets dirty, the bird is moved into a clean one—sometimes through as many as 10 to 15 different tubs.
  • When the bird is clean, it is rinsed. All the detergent must be removed or the bird won't be fully waterproof.
  • The bird is dried under commercial pet-grooming dryers. It begins to preen its feathers to put them back into place.
  • The bird is moved to a warm-water pool to recover and continue preening. When ready, it's moved to a cold-water pool and watched to make sure it is feeding and behaving normally.
  • A bird band is placed on the bird for identification. When the bird is completely healthy, it's released in a place that federal and state wildlife agencies have determined is safe.

Find out more about this process from the International Bird Rescue Research Center.

Is there anything we can do to help?

If you live in the Gulf region check with your local municipalities for volunteer opportunities.

National Wildlife Federation, its affiliates and partners have established a volunteer network to help with the huge task of restoring Gulf Coast wetlands. In the beginning, Gulf Coast Surveillance Teams monitored the coastline daily, watching for evidence of oil harming wildlife or impacting the ecosystem. Information provided by these teams helped state and federal officials and clean-up teams target their efforts. Now, the role of these volunteers has shifted to working on longer-term efforts to continue with clean up and restore the delicate coastal ecosystems of the Gulf region. Learn more about the volunteer efforts and how you might be able to assist them here.

Of course, the best long-term solution to disasters such as this one is to decrease our use of fossil fuels and find better alternatives. Implementing the Eco-Schools USA Energy Pathway is a great way to work toward that goal at your school. You can also involve students in putting pressure on government officials to make stronger environmental laws and to lead the way in changing our energy policy.

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