How Oil Affects Birds
and Other Wildlife

A Brown Pelican

A Brown Pelican

Oil is very sticky and can coat birds and other wildlife with a thick layer of goo.

Some oils also get stickier over time (scientists call this weathering) and can end up coating birds and other wildlife as a spill drags on. Since most oil naturally floats on the surface of the water it can create harmful impacts on birds and other wildlife that live in or near the water. Many birds, turtles, dolphins, and other creatures can’t avoid an oil spill. They swim, feed, and nest in areas that are contaminated with oil. Some fish are attracted to oil because it looks like floating food. This also threatens aquatic birds, like pelicans, which may dive through oil slicks to get to the fish.

Birds are especially threatened by oil. When oil gets on birds’ feathers, it can create all kinds of problems, including:

  • causing hypothermia by reducing or destroying the insulation they get from their feathers
  • matting birds’ feathers, which prevents them from flying away from predators as easily
  • causing birds to sink or drown because oiled feathers weigh more and their sticky feathers cannot trap enough air between them to keep them buoyant
  • causing birds to become dehydrated and starved as they stop drinking and can’t get to the food they need
  • causing ulcers and stomach bleeding when birds preen their feathers or dive for fish, and ingest the oil
  • causing health problems when birds breathe oil fumes