Oil spills can have very deadly consequences on pelicans because these birds frequently land and float on the water. The oil destroys the insulating quality of a pelican’s feathers which can then lead to hypothermia. In addition, if any of the oil is consumed when the pelican attempts to groom itself, ailments such as ulcers, diarrhea, kidney and liver damage can occur.
Bird feathers contain microscopic barbs that prevent water from reaching a bird’s skin. Oil causes these barbs to clump together and separate, inhibiting flight and exposing a bird’s skin to the elements (overheating or freezing). In addition, birds will focus almost exclusively on trying to clean themselves under these conditions and become vulnerable to predators.
Unfortunately, 6 months after the brown pelican was removed from the endangered species list (after 50 years of work increasing the wild population after it plummeted from the effects of DDT and pesticides) the BP oil spill occured, soaking dozens of brown pelicans in oil. Many pelicans cannot survive without human intervention once they have been covered in oil, but many rescue groups helped to clean the birds to minimize mortality rates.
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