Interview with David Ringer

Photo of David Ringer

You have been in Louisiana to see the impact on birds. What has affected you the most?

It’s hard to see birds coated with oil because they are suffering, and some of them will die. Also, people are losing their livelihoods, and the whole ecosystem is in danger. We have caused all of this, and that makes me very sad.

What actually happens when birds are coated with oil?

As you can see, the young Brown Pelican pictured above has swum through oil, coating its breast and belly feathers, which now look stringy and spiky. This puts the bird in danger for several reasons. The most serious is that oiled feathers lose their insulating properties, so that birds can’t control their body temperatures. Oiled birds are more vulnerable to hypothermia (in the water or the rain) and hyperthermia (in the sun and hot temperatures).

In addition, oiled feathers can’t protect a bird’s skin from the sun, and that means these birds can get serious sunburn. It’s also hard for oiled feathers to repel water, and that makes it hard for a bird so swim properly and survive in their aquatic environment.

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Do birds actually mistakenly eat the oil?

Birds don’t intentionally eat oil, but they can swallow it when they try to preen the oil out of their feathers or catch fish in oily waters. Since oil is toxic, it can damage a bird’s internal organs.

Some very lightly oiled birds may recover on their own, but for all of these reasons and others, even small amounts of oil on their plumage can slowly kill birds.

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Which birds will be most affected?

One species we’re really worried about are brown pelicans. These large birds were on the endangered species list for many years. The major cause of their problems was pesticide poisoning from DDT. But since DDT was banned, they have made a comeback.

We’re worried that these birds will be affected by the oil because they feed by plunging into the water to catch fish. And some of the pelicans that we saw did have oil covering their breasts and bellies. Our scientists are closely monitoring brown pelican populations and helping to protect those nesting areas that were not impacted by oil. They are also working with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon volunteers to help with all aspects of the clean up.

Many other birds are in harm’s way too, including sandpipers and plovers, gulls and terns, large wading birds and secretive marsh birds. For a more complete list of the birds that are impacted, visit Audubon’s Gulf Spill Resources pages

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What is the long-term impact of the oil spill?

We don’t know yet. We know that there will be many wildlife deaths, but we don’t know how many or what the long-term impact will be. We know that habitat will be contaminated for years—and that some nesting areas and feeding grounds have already been affected. We also know that people’s lives will be affected for many, many years. Beaches and fishing grounds are already closed.

We must learn from this disaster. People need to see that our increasing use of energy is creating the demand. We need to use less oil and develop more renewable energy sources. We need to make sure we don’t use technologies (like deep sea oil drilling) without knowing how to prevent disasters like this. And we need to understand the link between healthy ecosystems and the quality of life for all people.

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Are people in danger from the oil spill?

Millions of people depend on the Gulf of Mexico and the wetlands and beaches that hug the coast to survive. Fishermen earn their living catching fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and other seafood. And wetlands act as nurseries, producing eggs and larvae that help stock our oceans with seafood. Many areas are already closed to fishing. In addition, many people earn their living from tourists who come to beaches to swim and recreate. Many beaches are already closed; many fear more areas will be shut down as the oil spreads. In some areas, toxic fumes from the oil and chemicals can also cause people to get sick. And we shouldn’t forget that this disaster has already killed 11 people and injured many more during the explosion.

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How can young people help?

There are so many things that young people can do to help—whether you live near the coast or far away. Many people want to help clean up oiled birds and other wildlife. But that takes special training and is not the only way to help. Here are three important things that everyone can do.

Use less energy and get others to use less energy. This is REALLY important.

Support organizations that are working to clean up the oil spill, monitor the impact, and protect habitat.

Protect wildlife habitat where you live. This disaster has shown how important it is to have healthy ecosystems. And if you do live hear the coast, you can work with groups like Audubon to protect those habitat areas that are still healthy so that birds and other wildlife have a place to nest and feed.

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