Fishing is not for the Birds

This pelican bit on something it couldn't chew. The hook was removed and the bird flew away. Photo by author
This pelican bit on something it couldn’t chew. The hook was removed and the bird flew away. Photo by author

Hopefully, if you are a fisherman you’ve caught plenty of fish and know how to unhook them whether it’s to put them back in the water or in the frying pan.

Have you ever caught a bird?

I have and it’s not a beautiful thing. Most of the fish-eating birds I’ve hooked over the years are not the sparrows, doves or robins you see hopping around your yard. They are mean, have sharp beaks and don’t particularly like what’s happening to them.

But it happens if you fish long enough. A gull, heron, cormorant, merganser or some other fish-eating bird bites your bait. It panics, you panic. Catching fish is fun. Catching a bird is unique, but much less fun. There’s a way to get that bird released.

The first thing to know is don’t cut the line. Birds that fly away with hook and line attached are at risk of getting entangled in trees and dying. That left-over line is could possibly snare other wildlife.

First, reel in the bird slowly and evenly. Don’t try to shake the bird loose by jerking the line. It probably won’t come unhooked and it will likely inflict additional injury to the bird.

Make sure the bird remains in the water until a net, such as a hoop net, can be used to lift it out and into the boat or onto the shore or dock. Birds reeled up out of the water can be seriously injured and can potentially damage fishing equipment.

If possible, enlist others for assistance and also, if possible, put on some protective gear such as sunglasses to protect your eyes, gloves and long sleeved jackets. That’s not always an option, but if it is, take it. Take extra care to protect yourself when handling long-billed wading birds and hooked-billed cormorants. Even a gull with a hook in it’s mouth and an attitude can be formidable.

Many people are afraid to grab a large bird like a pelican or heron but there’s a way to do it without hurting the bird or the rescuer. Firmly grasp the bird’s head behind the eyes. Then fold the wings up gently but firmly against the bird’s body so that it can’t flap its wings, and hold the legs. Hold firmly but don’t strangle the bird. Control the bird’s head so it can’t peck or bite but allow the beak to stay slightly open so the bird can breathe.

If the hook is in the wing or body, rescuers can cover the bird’s head with a towel, hat, shirt or other cloth. This will calm the bird and make it easier to remove the line and/or hook.

Remove the hook by cutting the barb and backing the hook out. If the barb is embedded in the bird’s flesh, push the hook through until the barb emerges from the skin and then clip the barb.

If the bird is entangled in line, use scissors, clippers or a knife to gently cut the line.

If the bird is feisty, it is likely healthy enough to release. Place the bird’s feet on the ground and step back while you release the bird. Let the bird take off on its own. Sometimes birds shake out their feathers, assess the situation and are then ready to fly. Other times, they just take off. Either way, this represents a successful release.

If the bird has swallowed the hook, or is severely injured, take it to a local rehabilitator. For a list of rehabbers in your area, go to the DNR website for whatever state you are in and find a list of rehabilitators.

Monofilament and fishing tackle left in the environment create potential traps for unsuspecting wildlife that become entangled or snared, leading to injury and death. What can you do to prevent bird entanglement?

Don’t feed pelicans, gulls cormorants or other waterbirds. This causes them to congregate in areas where they are more likely to get hooked or tangled in fishing line. Discard fish carcasses in lidded trash cans. Birds will feed on carcasses tossed in the water, which can lead to injury or death. Fish carcasses often are larger than the bait fish that birds normally feed upon, and the larger bones and spines can puncture the bird’s throat or digestive tract. Birds attracted by fish carcasses may gather in areas where they are more likely to become entangled in fishing line.

Cast away from birds and shoreline vegetation. Collect and store loose monofilament line until it can be discarded properly. Keep bait buckets covered. Take unused bait home or discard in covered containers.

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