GRAND ISLE, La. - The image of a brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird, struggling in oil on a barrier island near Grand Isle has come to symbolize the struggles of a state now under siege by BP oil.
As the state responds to the spill, a small army of bird experts are working around the clock to save the pelicans and other oiled sea birds now arriving by the dozens at a makeshift rescue center in Fort Jackson.
"They're plunge feeding, at least the pelicans to eat fish," said the center's spokesman Jay Holcomb of Tri-State Bird Rescue. "Fish go under the oil to fish. It's just something floating they can hide under and the birds don't know that and they plunge to get the fish and they get engulfed in oil."
Birds coated in oil will likely die if they're not rescued and quickly rehabilitated.
"The oil causes the bird not be able to maintain their waterproofing, so they can't regulate their body temperature," said Heather Nevill a Tri-State veterinarian. "They also ingest the oil, trying to get it off their feathers."
It takes the staff about an hour to clean each bird.
They are dipped in a warm bath and shampooed in dishwashing detergent until the last of the oil is removed.
So far, 8 out of every 10 birds treated at the center have been saved and will eventually be released back into the wild.
There is a real fear about the oil's long-term effect on sensitive bird habitat along the Gulf Coast.
"We are all very concerned about the habitat and the ecosystem about the oil that's coming in now that's mixed with the dispersant and the long term effects," said Sharon Taylor from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's going to go on for years and years. We potentially have impacts to this year's breeding season, for future breeding seasons."
Wildlife expects say oiled birds are now coming in at an alarming rate.
There were 66 birds rescued during the first five weeks of the disaster. That number has more than doubled in the past few days.
"We shifted from a lot of preparation to now all of a sudden, having to take action," said Holcomb. "We were getting one to four birds a day which is really manageable for us and now this is manageable, but what it really means is everyone has to go into action and we have to build up our corps a little bit which we're doing."
As for the pelican seen struggling on the beach Thursday, so far - so good.
"That bird is alive along with the others," said Holcomb. "They are maintaining their body temperature. They're just resting, getting food and they're going to be washed in the next few days."
Thirteen birds arrived at the rescue center Friday morning.
More were on the way from a rookery on Queen Bass Island Near Grand isle.