GRAND ISLAND, La. - Each day the tides bring life to the beaches and marshes. They supply the birds' food and safety, but when they bring oil, they can kill on contact.
Foraging sea birds dance in and out of the surf unaware of the toxic landmines dotting the beach. Small blobs of reddish oil are turning up on beaches like the one in Grand Isle. They are usually smaller than 50-cent piece, but when it comes to birds and oil, there's no such thing as small change.
"They've done studies with murres up in the Northwest and it's about the size of a dime that can cause a bird to go into hypothermia," said Seattle biologist Dan Norman.
On their feathers, oil removes the bird's thermal insulation. The very water they depend on for safety becomes a threat. If they try to preen it away, they ingest it and poison themselves.
Norman grew up in Louisiana and is back on bird patrol. He has taken a formula used to assess birds in the Pacific Northwest at the greatest risk from oil exposure and applied to Gulf Coast species.
The once nearly extinct brown pelican is at the top of the list.
"The brown pelican tends to sit in the water so it gets covered in oil that way," he said.
Biologists have seen what happens to birds that encounter oil on beaches and in the surf. What they are not familiar with is what will happen if oil washes into the marshlands. The fear is the native grasses and other plants will pick it up and pass it on to the first creature that rubs up against it.
Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says at least 13 oiled birds have died since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig triggered the massive spill. Seven others that were recovered are still alive.