U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Science of the Total Environment 718 (2020) 137380

doi 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.137380


US govt


Impacts of large-scale oil spills on avian species are far-reaching.While media attention often focuses on lethal impacts, sub-lethal effects and the impacts of rehabilitation receive less attention. The objective of our study was to characterize effects of moderate external oiling and subsequent rehabilitation on feather structure and thermoregulation in gulls. We captured 30 wild ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) and randomly assigned each individual to an experimental group: 1) controls, 2) rehabilitated birds (externally oiled, rehabilitated by washing), or 3) oiled birds (externally oiled, not rehabilitated). We externally oiled birds with weathered MC252 Deepwater Horizon oil (water for controls) and collected feathers and thermography imagery (FLIR) approximately weekly for four weeks to investigate feather structure (quantified using a barbule clumping index) and thermoregulatory ability (characterized by internal body temperature and external surface temperature). Post-oiling feather clumping was significantly higher in oiled and rehabilitated birds compared to controls, but steadily declined over time in both groups. However, feather microstructure in rehabilitated birds was indistinguishable from controls within three weeks of washing whereas the feathers of oiled birds were still significantly clumped a month post oiling. Internal body temperatures didn't differ in any of the groups, suggesting birds maintain thermoregulatory homeostasis in spite of moderate external oiling. External temperatures for rehabilitated birds didn't differ from controls within a week of rehabilitation. Overall, rehabilitation procedures were effective and washed birds were in better condition compared to non-rehabilitated, oiled birds. This study provides evidence that the benefits of rehabilitation for moderately oiled birds likely outweigh the costs with regard to feather structure and thermoregulation.While feather preening and time were insufficient to reestablish baseline fine scale feather structure in moderately oiled birds, the significant clumping reduction over time may indicate that rehabilitation of lightly oiled birds may not be necessary and deserves further study.