Scientists are working to lure migrating birds away from the oil in the Gulf of Mexico and toward safe habitat.
At stake is the well-being of more than 50 million birds migrating south to or through the Gulf over the next six months, with the first wave expected in the next few weeks. The Gulf is a rest stop for species that breed in the Arctic and northern Canada and winter in Latin America or the Caribbean, and it's a destination for waterfowl and some shorebirds.
"The impact of the Gulf disaster on migrating birds will be like a train derailment during rush hour," said Frank Gill, president of the National Audubon Society. "Not only will it affect the entire system, but its repercussions will be long-lasting."
The best hope for drawing birds away from the oiled area, federal biologists say, is to make other habitats more hospitable. Birds that find abundant food and wetlands farther from the oily stretches may linger there longer, said Paul Schmidt, assistant director for migratory birds at the Fish and Wildlife Service.
So Fish and Wildlife and the Agriculture Department are launching efforts to provide more wetland habitat for migrating birds on public and private lands.
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service on Monday launched a $20 million program to pay landowners to idle land, restore wetlands and enhance habitat. The agency hopes to affect up to 150,000 acres in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.
The money will come from existing conservation programs that pay landowners to improve environmental practices on farms. Conservation Service Chief Dave White said his agency hopes to be later reimbursed by the company responsible for the spill, BP PLC, but is using existing federal funds to get the program up and running as quickly as possible.
The agency is trying to enroll farmers this month so that early migrators will have a place to go, White said.
USDA is also partnering with the nonprofit Ducks Unlimited to provide more cash to landowners in Texas and Louisiana. USDA usually pays 75 percent the cost of conservation improvements, leaving a quarter of the cost for landowners. But with a $2.5 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Ducks Unlimited will help cover the rest of the tab for landowners.
On public lands, the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking steps to make national wildlife refuges as appealing as possible to migrating birds. The service is also building berms to keep oil out of bird habitat and declare some areas off-limits for duck hunters, Schmidt said. Thus far, however, no new hunting regulations are planned.
To support the effort, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has received $5 million -- with the potential to get more later -- from the sale of oil recovered from the BP spill fund.
But the investment in habitat doesn't guarantee success, biologists say.
"I don't want to mislead you to think that, with these techniques, we can cause major changes in migration. Our success will be measured in local effects," Schmidt said. "We can hopefully get them to stay in clean areas a little longer and reduce their exposure to the oil. We won't be able to affect millions of birds."
The service may also place noisemakers and reflective tape near some oil patches in an effort to keep birds out, Schmidt said. But those efforts are labor-intensive and of questionable effectiveness. The spill, he said, is simply too large.
"It's not one concentrated area; it's literally thousands of miles of coast that need to be dealt with," he said.
Some birds are more likely to alter their migration patterns than others, ornithologists say.
Birds bound for the tropics, for example, will change their paths based on weather rather than on what's happening on the ground, said Ellen Paul, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Ornithological Council.
The oil could tip the balance against the birds as they try to make the long flight over the Caribbean to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Paul said.
"These birds mass near the coast, and when the conditions are right, they take off and fly the whole night," Paul said. "If there are adverse conditions, a lot of them don't make it. Add to that oil, I just can't imagine what it's going to look like in a few weeks."
For ducks, geese and other waterfowl, the future may be brighter, said Greg Butcher, an ornithologist and director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society.
Studies indicate that waterfowl only go as far south as necessary to find waters that aren't frozen over, Butcher said.
So if the federal programs create more wetlands to the north, they may be able to keep some birds from heading all the way to the oil, he said.
"It's a little scary to do an experiment this large under emergency conditions, but I think it's worth a try," Butcher said.
USDA 'buffet' opening soon
USDA's first enrollee is Dave Wiatrek, a crawfish farmer in Calhoun County, Texas. Wiatrek will create different types of wetlands on 227 acres of his 250-acre farm.
Wiatrek, a member of Ducks Unlimited, bought the former rice farm about six years ago. He has flooded the land before to create bird habitat, but said he was not going to be able to this year because of increasing water costs and the sour economy.
Under the conservation management plan, Wiatrek will lower and raise the water over the course of the winter to provide deep water for diving ducks and mud flats for shorebirds. He is working to prepare the area now to try to create habitat for blue-winged teal, which usually arrive by the end of August.
The birds, said USDA's White, are "going to have a buffet."