Update: Migratory Birds in the Gulf of Mexico

Migratory waterfowl in Louisiana
Northern pintails and other migrants feed in recently flooded field in Louisiana. Photo by John Pitre, NRCS.

Just over six months into the worst oil disaster in U.S. history, federal officials finally have some good news for those of us concerned about birds in the Gulf of Mexico. At a recent press conference, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that far more landowners than expected have signed up for a federal project to create new wetland habitat and provide food for migratory birds away from oil-contaminated areas.

The Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative is an unprecedented effort launched by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) last summer to encourage farmers and other landowners to provide habitat for tens of millions of migratory shorebirds, waterfowl and other birds headed to the gulf coast this fall and winter.

According to Vilsack, the department’s initial goal was to enroll 150,000 acres in the program.  But so many farmers wanted to help that the project’s funding was doubled to $40 million. Now more than 470,000 acres are enrolled in eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

Participants are carefully flooding their rice, soybean and other lands with varying levels of water and planting vegetation appropriate for the diversity of species flying into the region. A parallel program sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is creating habitat for migratory birds on federal lands adjacent to the spill zone.

Reports from the field suggest that migrants are making good use of these man-made refuges. The photo above, for example, shows hundreds of northern pintails, dowitchers and other waterfowl and shorebirds gathered in recently flooded cropland in Louisiana’s Vermillion parish.  “Where lands have been flooded, the response has been phenomenal,” confirms Tom Moorman, director of conservation planning for the southern region of Ducks Unlimited, an NRCS program participant. (His group alone has signed up 75,780 acres.)

Still, concerns remain. According to Moorman, most waterfowl have not yet arrived in the gulf region. Cold weather and frozen aquatic habitat are what “push the majority of ducks down from the Midwest,” says wildlife biologist Pete Heard, director of the NRCS National Agricultural Wildlife Conservation Center in Madison, Mississippi. “So far, that hasn’t happened.”

Meanwhile, tens of millions of gallons of oil remain in the Gulf of Mexico, and reports of oil washing ashore into the marshes occur regularly.

The NRCS initiative is helping birds in another critical, yet unforeseen, way this migration season.  Because the gulf region is suffering from a major drought, in many places “water pumped in by program participants is the only water available at all,” says Heard. “That’s made the project even more important to the region’s birds.”

NWF on the frontlines: Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded last April, NWF wildlife experts have been working on-scene in the Gulf of Mexico region. Find out what they’re doing and how you can help.