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Migration and energetics model predicts delayed migration and likely starvation in oiled waterbirds

October 14, 2022

Oil spills can inflict mortality and injury on bird populations; many of these deaths involve starvation resulting from thermoregulatory costs incurred by oiling of birds’ feathers. However, the fates and responses of sublethally oiled birds are poorly known. Due to this knowledge gap and the potential for birds to die far from the spill site, resource risk and injury assessors need tools to make informed estimates for delayed deaths and lost reproductive capacity in these birds. Focusing on the thermoregulatory cost of oiled feathers, we present a model addressing one facet of the effects of sublethal oiling on birds. Using mallard-like ducks as a model organism, we combined values from previous laboratory studies of oiled birds with a modified version of an existing temperature-influenced avian migration energetics model. Using this model, we examined the potential effects of oiling on general migration patterns, changes in energetic gains required to compensate for oiling, and starvation. We assessed all metrics across multiple oiling severities; we assessed starvation across both oiling severity and body condition. Median estimates for delays in spring migration were one to two months for trace and lightly oiled birds, and we predicted arrested spring migration in moderately oiled birds. Median estimates of required increases in energetic gains to offset costs of increased thermoregulation ranged from 20.3% to 88.6% depending on severity of oiling. We predicted starvation within four weeks for most combinations of oiling severity and body condition at the median predicted minimum wintering temperature of unoiled birds (-4.9°C). However, at the average winter temperature of the southernmost model latitude (10.8°C), we predicted only moderately oiled birds in less-than-excellent body condition had the potential to starve within a four-week time frame. Due to the potential for even trace oiling to delay spring migration and decrease body condition, the thermoregulatory costs of sublethal oiling during spring migration could reduce a bird's reproductive capacity. Future research integrating this initial energetics-based model into a spatially explicit, population scale migration model could provide additional insight into the potential effects of sublethal oiling on reproduction and survival. Such an integrated model could strengthen risk predictions and injury assessments for birds subjected to sublethal oiling.

Publication Year 2022
Title Migration and energetics model predicts delayed migration and likely starvation in oiled waterbirds
DOI 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2022.110138
Authors Benjamin M West, Mark L. Wildhaber, Kevin J. Aagaard, Wayne E. Thogmartin, Adrian Parr Moore, Michael J. Hooper
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Modelling
Index ID 70240698
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Columbia Environmental Research Center