Minnesota's loons may soon be heading to the scene of a disaster. In October and November, thousands will migrate to coastal waters along the Gulf of Mexico. Between April 20 and July 15, an estimated 200 million gallons of oil poured from a broken well deep in Gulf waters. The spillage has stopped and oil that rose to the surface has dissipated. Yet water birds—particularly deep-diving common loons—risk contact with oil and chemical dispersants that persist below the surface, says DNR Nongame Wildlife Program supervisor Carrol Henderson. So do other Minnesota birds wintering along the Gulf, including ospreys, American white pelicans, spotted sandpipers, western grebes, lesser scaup, and redheads.
Minnesota's migratory bird populations bring the oceanic catastrophe close to home and remind us that natural systems connect in profound and sometimes unfathomable ways.
When disaster strikes, concerned citizens have an immediate urge to help. For example, more than 13,000 people signed up to help the National Audubon Society in its coastal bird rescue work. And when a crisis appears to have passed, most Americans want to quickly move on. In this case of environmental contamination, we have reason to stand watch.
"We have never had a spill of this magnitude in the deep ocean," said oceanography professor Ian MacDonald in a story in The New York Times. "These things reverberate through the ecosystem. It is an ecological echo chamber, and I think we'll be hearing the echoes of this, ecologically, for the rest of my life."
Henderson suggests some immediate actions Minnesotans can take to help wildlife in the long term. One simple start: Buy federal duck stamps online or at your local post office. This year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a $25 special edition to raise funds for purchasing wetlands to add to Gulf Coast national wildlife refuges.
The DNR's long-term monitoring of the state's loon populations could prove vital to understanding the oil disaster's impact on loons. Volunteers in the Minnesota Loon Monitoring Program annually check 600 lakes. Minnesota Loon Watcher Survey also relies on volunteers. And everyone can contribute to the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program.
As we continue to monitor birds on both their wintering and breeding grounds, we might keep in mind the slowly realized disaster of DDT use in the 1950s and '60s. The grave effects of DDT on wildlife took a long time to recognize. The painstaking research and courageous reporting of Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and writer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, brought the problem of ubiquitous chemical contamination to the nation's attention in her 1962 bestseller, Silent Spring.
"The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings," Carson wrote. She reported case after case of people failing to appreciate the complexity of those interactions. Consider one example: She told of attempts to control gnats on a popular fishing lake in northern California by spraying DDD, a close relative of DDT. "No trace of DDD could be found in the water shortly after the last application of the chemical. But the poison had not really left the lake; it had merely gone into the fabric of the life the lake supports." Nearly two years after the spraying ended, DDD persisted in plankton, apparently passing from one generation to the next. Thus, the poison entered the food chain, accumulating in the flesh of frogs, fish, and birds to concentrations many times the original in the water.
Oil does not move up the food chain as some compounds do. But the ripple effects of oil and nearly 2 million gallons of dispersants underwater in the Gulf have yet to be discovered.
What will happen to the continent's wildlife in the wake of this contamination? As Henderson says, no one wants to imagine Minnesota lakes absent the wild calls of common loons. That would be a silent spring.
Kathleen Weflen, editor