University of Alberta

Toxicology of Oil Sands Process-affected Water to Birds

M.Sc. Thesis of Elizabeth Beck

Defended 29 April 2014



The effects of oil and oil-related compounds on birds have been studied extensively through experimental studies as well as observations of wildlife exposed to oil by means of accidental spills as well as containment structures such as tailings ponds. The extent of the knowledge on this subject demonstrates both the enormity of oil’s effect on birds, as well as scientific and public interest in the matter. The breadth of studies on oil and birds covers areas such as the direct impacts of oiling external body surfaces; the link between oil exposure and hormone disruptions or behavioural changes; and oil induced toxicities of metabolic, gastrointestinal, haematological, absorptive/excretory, immunological, genetic, neurological, reproductive/developmental and physical origins.


Alberta has large oil sands deposits and their development is expected to increase rapidly.  The process of extracting bitumen generates large tailings ponds for which there are no currently viable process to reclaim land to pre-extraction condition. These ponds pose a risk to migratory birds, which fly over the area en route to important staging areas only 200 kilometers in Wood Buffalo National Park.  That site attracts hundreds of thousands of birds each year, causing similar numbers to pass through the region each spring and fall.1


Birds sometimes land on tailings ponds, particularly during severe weather in the spring or fall.  Constituents or oil sands process materials (OSPM) in the tailings water that potentially pose a threat to birds include: unrecovered bitumen, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naphthenic acids, salts, ammonia, and trace metals.1

The high molecular weight PAHs that pose the greatest health risks to birds are found primarily in sediments and are not soluble in water. Some naphthenic acids biodegrade quickly in the environment, however, their refractory fractions may persist for many years.  There is evidence that salts interact with naphthenic acids and increase their toxic effects. Exposure to these chemicals can occur through contact with skin and feathers, drinking or bathing in contaminated water, and consumption of aquatic invertebrates and vegetation.1

Although we know that substantial contact with bitumen is lethal for birds, those that land without contacting bitumen typically fly away. In addition, birds land on mature tailings ponds or recycle water ponds which contain no visible bitumen and it is unknown what longer-term effects this contact has on health and survival of affected species.


Field toxicology was led by Elizabeth Beck, an MSc. student under the supervision of Colleen Cassady St. Clair (University of Alberta) and Judit Smits (University of Calgary). Her research goals were to determine the toxicological effects of mature tailings pond water on waterfowl health using Pekin ducks (Anas platyrhynchos domestica) as an experimental model.

Patrick Welsh conducted a literature review of the effects of oil on birds under the joint supervision of Keith Tierney and Colleen Cassady St. Clair (University of Alberta).


1.     St. Clair, C.C. 2011. Draft  prospectus for instrument-based monitoring of birds in the oil sands.