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A dead Portuguese Man-O-War floats on a blob of oil in the waters of Chandeleur Sound off of Louisiana.

Eric Gay/The Globe and Mail

For the birds that nest in the fragile marshes, swamps and barrier islands of the U.S. Gulf Coast, the timing of a massive oil slick threatening the shore could not be worse.

On the Chandeleur Islands - a chain of islands off the Louisiana coast where an oil spill from last month's offshore oil rig explosion could hit shore as early as Tuesday - about 3,000 brown pelicans, Louisiana's state bird, are nesting and laying eggs.

"They are right in the middle of having eggs hatching and feeding their chicks," said Michael Fry, a bird expert at the American Bird Conservancy who advised the U.S. government after the massive 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. "I expect the pelicans will get pretty hammered."

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The dozens of state and national parks and wildlife reserves that line the four Gulf Coast states in the path of the spill are vitally important to hundreds of species of birds that live there or rest there during migrations.

Many of the birds injured by the oil could end up in Fort Jackson at a rescue centre run by the International Bird Rescue Research Center and Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research.

A small army of volunteers and wildlife officials have laid booms in the water to protect about 322 kilometres of the most sensitive bird habitats in Louisiana and Mississippi, Mr. Fry said.

But even if the oil is kept from shore, birds that fly out to sea to catch fish will inevitably be soiled, he said.

So far just one bird - a Northern Gannet - has received treatment there. That bird is recovering, but rescuers fear that the stormy weather that hindered efforts to contain the spill for days has also kept their volunteers from venturing out into the water and rescuing other injured birds.

"It's a real logistical challenge," said Tom Holcomb, who directs the rescue centre in Fort Jackson.

"Human safety is number one - we can't just send people out in boats in rough seas," Mr. Holcomb said. "The concern is we won't get to the birds in time."

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When a bird becomes coated in oil, it loses its insulation. Oil-saturated feathers stick together, exposing the animal's skin. Even in relatively warm temperatures, high winds can chill the bird quickly. Birds are apt to ingest the toxic oil as they feed in the water.

Tri-State veterinarian Erica Miller, who is part of the rescue team, said treating oiled birds is a delicate process. A bird must be stabilized after experiencing the shocks of the oil and then being captured before it can be washed.

To counter oil ingestion, birds must repeatedly receive fluids. "We also give them Pepto-Bismol in appropriate doses," Ms. Miller said. "We carefully administer it directly into the stomach to help alleviate some of the irritation."

Coastal birds like brown pelicans, egrets, herons and ibises are the most vulnerable to an oil spill, because the oil will seep into their habitat and stay there for years, Mr. Fry said.

Once it settles into the mangroves and cat-tails of the marshes, oil migrates into the filter-feeding creatures that birds, in turn, feed on - like oysters, clams and shrimp.

"It will be there for years," Mr. Fry said.

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