This story was originally covered by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.
It's now officially migratory season, the time of the year when millions of birds, including some 300 species, start heading south for the winter. This year, an estimated 40 to 50 million birds will instinctively put themselves at risk of coming into contact with oil from the BP disaster in the Gulf Coast. And during past spills, only about 1 in every 10 birds have survived exposure to oil.
"The risk is certainly very high," Dr. Tom Moorman of Ducks Unlimitedin Mississippi told PRI's The Takeaway, "because there's so much oil floating out there on the gulf."
A little-known government agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has been partnering with farmers, ranchers and nonprofits like Ducks Unlimited to try to mitigate the disaster. They're flooding fields and creating other landing sites so birds won't have to land on the oil.
The goal is to "minimize the likelihood that these migrating birds will come into contact with the oil impacted area," the chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service Dave White told The Takeaway. They're also trying to "make sure they have food and habitat to compensate them for sources that may be reduced or eliminated because of the spill."
The problem is already bad, but according to Moorman, "it could get much much worse." If hurricanes hit, oil could get pushed into interior marshes, contaminating far more of the potential habitat of these migrating birds.
Even in the best of conditions, Moorman isn't sure that the program of creating alternative habitats will work. There are so many factors that affect where birds land during migrations that Moorman says, "whether or not we can delay that through a habitat program is really unknown."
Knowing the limitations of the program, Dave White of the Natural Resources Conservation Service is still determined to try. He told The Takeaway, "Even if the chance is small that we succeed, what kind of people would we be if we didn't try?"
"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH. More at thetakeaway.org