[Deepwater Horizon — One Year Later] We’re looking at an individual life that is trying desperately to make it and although we tend, especially we scientists, tend to think about populations, not so much individuals, [John Fitzpatrick, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology] you can’t help but look at these images and realize that every one of those individuals out there that was affected by our mistake is an individual life struggling with as much dignity as anyone of us. Looking right into the eye of a bird suffering as much as that pelican does make you realize what we owe these as individuals. As we look back on the disaster that unfolded in the gulf in 2010 a couple things come to mind. Number one: We certainly did avoid the calamitous disaster that we all feared would happen. The oil never did come ashore in the huge quantities that we feared, and by and large the colonies of birds out there did end up rearing young. We think they probably were affected a lot more than you can see because by looking closely it’s clear that tens of thousands of those bird actually were affected by oil. When you study very closely these high definition images you realize that almost all the babies a huge proportion of the adults down there were affected at least a little bit by this oil. They weren’t drenched in oil but almost all of them have flecks of it here and there; almost all of them are preening a little more than they have to; and you realize that a lot of it is around their mouths and inside their beaks and obviously they’re ingesting it. By looking closely into the system down there what emerged is the fact that it had really widespread impact and levels that are outside the human perception when we look at them from five hundred yards away. Birds, and especially seabirds are extremely resilient organisms they’ve evolved over millions of years to handle nature’s problems including years in which storms or floods completely destroy their breeding season. They live a long time and they have the capacity to resist and persist. The question is how many additional problems of the kinds that humans provide out there can these populations endure and still persist through time? We keep adding them. We take away habitat, we take away opportunities for breeding, we take away their food, and then we add oil spills. And the question is how much of this can they take before the system itself collapses? The fact that birds are so sensitive an indicator of how the landscape is doing, and the fact that they are so easily counted by people, means that the birds actually give us a chance to measure whether the landscape across the planet is declining in health, or stable, or improving. Because birds give us this microscope into how nature works so beautifully we can actually figure out what’s going wrong figure out what the human impact is, adjust our behavior. The birds rebound because the system’s rebounding. We do have options to actually improve the landscapes not just make them worse. The single big event of the Gulf of Mexico reminds us that we have a lot of work and responsibility long-term to keep track of how we’re doing. The delta of the Mississippi River, one of the great rivers of the world, that’s a place that we need to embrace, we need to protect, we do need to restore so that a century from now it’ll actually be far better than it is today. There are huge areas and enormous diversity of systems that are still functioning across this planet. We all recognize that we will all be better off if we can stop costing the world species, communities, and natural systems. We want to be able to live in a stable position with them, and by studying these organisms now, using birds as a focal tool for indicating successes and failures, we can stop the declines and we can end up protecting that which is left – which after all is still spectacularly diverse and wonderful.

End of transcript

John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, gives his perspective on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill one year later.