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Earthspan, Inc. and Peregrine Fund study effects of oil spill on Peregrine Falcons in Gulf of Mexico (with video)

19 October 2010

BOISE, Idaho – Plummeting numbers of Peregrine Falcons alerted the world to the environmental dangers of DDT in the 1970s. Now, Peregrine Falcons are being used to measure any long-term effects from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Researchers will collect blood samples from migrating Peregrine Falcons on Padre Island, Texas, and Assateague Island, Maryland, and analyze them for spill-related toxins, such as PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). The Peregrine Fund, an Idaho-based conservation organization focused on birds of prey, has partnered with Earthspan, Inc., a non-profit in Maryland that focuses on conservation of biodiversity through research and technology.

“These birds are part of a fragile, complicated food web, so we will be able to tell whether the spill is having long-term effects on a variety of wildlife,” said J. Peter Jenny, president and CEO of The Peregrine Fund. “Peregrine Falcons were great indicators of environmental damage in the ‘70s when they were headed for extinction and now that they are recovered, they can indicate whether any dangers are lurking out there again.”

If they are present, toxins will accumulate in ever-larger quantities as they move through the food chain from the smallest organisms to larger predators, such as Peregrine Falcons. The falcons are more likely to eat birds that have been sickened or injured by exposure to oil.

“Falcons look for weaker birds to prey on, so their natural instincts may drive them to eat the most contaminated birds,” Jenny said. “That leaves us wondering whether the oil and chemical dispersants will compromise their survival and reproduction.”

After the falcons are captured, they will be evaluated for signs of oil exposure before a blood sample is taken. Earthspan biologists will put a USGS Bird Banding Laboratory band on each bird, then immediately release it to continue migrating. More than 80 percent of Peregrine Falcons moving south from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and other northern climates travel through the Gulf region in the autumn and/or spring.

“Principals at Earthspan, Inc. have conducted migration and breeding ground studies on the tundra peregrine in North America for over 40 years, archiving extensive data and blood samples from birds captured on Padre and Assateague islands,” said Mike Yates, Earthspan vice president. “These will provide an unparalleled baseline for this Gulf Coast oil spill.”

New blood samples will be compared with archived samples collected prior to the oil spill to detect changes in amounts and composition of PAHs and other pollutants.

“Our collaboration with the organization (The Peregrine Fund) that led the way in engineering the recovery of the American Peregrine Falcon sets a precedent in fielding one of the most experienced teams ever to investigate this issue,” said Dr. Bill Seegar, president of Earthspan.

The results of this year’s study will be used to evaluate the need for further investigations on summer breeding grounds and additional migration sampling next year.

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For more information, contact:

Erin Katzner

Director of Global Engagement
Main Phone: 208-362-3716
Direct Phone: 208-362-8277

  • PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are components of oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill and are known to cause a variety of adverse impacts on Peregrine Falcons, including poisoning, reproductive failure, and genetic mutations.
  • The Peregrine Falcon is an excellent environmental sentinel species for sensitivity to oil exposure from spills. After an oil spill off Spain in 2002, a study showed increased rates of adult mortality and reduced fertility among the falcons.
  • A study on gulls affected by the Spain spill suggested a delayed non-lethal impact on seabirds 17 months after the spill, particularly organ dysfunctions caused by PAH exposure, with the liver and kidneys particularly affected. The spill affected the food chain as proved by the high pollutant concentrations found among chicks fed marine life months later.
  • Peregrine Falcons will be captured using standard methods that have been used in falconry for centuries and more recently for banding, migration, telemetry and genetic studies. A biologist will be present at all times. Safe handling techniques that minimize stress on the birds include use of lightweight restraining cloaks and traditional falconry hoods.
The Peregrine Fund