Sinking rates of dead birds: Improving estimates of seabird mortality due to oiling

Wiese, Francis K. (2003) Sinking rates of dead birds: Improving estimates of seabird mortality due to oiling. Marine Ornithology, 31 (1). pp. 65-70. ISSN 2074-1235

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Seabird mortality resulting from oil spills is generally assessed based on the number of birds lost at sea. Drift blocks we often employed to determine the loss at sea and because blocks do not sink, but seabird carcasses do, it is essential to determine accurate sinking rates of seabird carcasses to correctly interpret onshore drift block recoveries. To quantify sinking rates of seabird carcasses, to determine possible differences between oiled and unoiled birds, and to investigate the importance of scavenging, I conducted an experiment in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, with 54 intact, but previously frozen murres (Uria spp.), the most common victims in oil spills in the Northern Hemisphere. Birds were randomly assigned to clean, lightly oiled (25% of body oiled) or heavily oiled (50% body oiled) categories. Twelve birds of each oiling category were placed into a floating three-chambered wooden-framed pen. The remaining birds were placed in a mesh-screened pen on the wharf. After nine days, randomly assigned carcasses from the floating pen and all birds on land, were opened to simulate partial scavenging. After 19 days, all flesh and muscles were removed from remaining birds to simulate complete scavenging. Changes in the buoyancy of carcasses were determined daily by measuring the amount of added mass (in 5 g increments) necessary to sink them (Burger 1991, cited in Burger and Fry 1993). On average, carcasses remained afloat 8.2 ± 1.0 d (95% C.I. 6.2 - 10.3), with no difference between oiled and unoiled, either floating or on land. Carcasses on land retained buoyancy significantly longer and only 1 carcass sank with the 24 d period. Buoyancy loss was best described by a logistic time-dependent function. When carcasses were scavenged, buoyancy loss increased exponentially. Based on these results, it appears that backwash and subsequent sinking of stranded carcasses is likely not a significant mechanism of carcasses removal from beaches. I recommend using a 10-14 d estimate for the length of time that murres and other auks remain afloat at sea, and to use a time-dependent logistic function to estimate the proportion of birds lost at sea. It appears that most estimates of seabird mortality due to spilled oil based on drift block experiments may be too low because onshore block recoveries relevant to seabird carcasses have been over-estimated.

Item Type: Article
Item ID: 572
Keywords: buoyancy; estimation method; mortality; oil pollution; oil spill; seabird; Aves; Christia; Ciconiiformes; Laridae; Uria
Department(s): Science, Faculty of > Biology
Date: 2003
Date Type: Publication

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