Many fishermen are faced with this dilemma at least once. The first thing to remember is not to panic and cut the line. This is very important because when a bird flies away with hooks and line attached, it often becomes tangled in trees, which can be fatal for the bird. Once the fishing line is snared in trees where birds roost, it can also continue to catch and kill more birds.
If a bird is hooked or entangled, here are some steps for their safe release:
- Reel the bird in slowly and evenly and do not attempt to shake the bird loose, which can increase the chance of injury.
- If you feel confident you can remove the hook and line from the bird without causing harm to it or yourself, do so by using the tips below. If not, or if the bird has swallowed the hook or is severely injured, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator. For a list of wildlife rehabilitators in your area, call any of the FWC’s five regional offices.
- Enlist your fishing partner to help and wear sunglasses or eye protection. Caught birds won’t know you are trying to free them and will try to get away. While birds don’t have teeth, they do have beaks and claws. Take extra care to protect yourself when handling long-billed wading birds and hooked-billed cormorants.
- Firmly grasp the bird’s head behind the eyes, and then hold its legs. Fold the wings up gently but firmly against the bird’s body so that it can’t flap. If it is a pelican, you can hold the beak but keep it slightly open so the bird can breathe.
- Cover the bird’s head with a towel or cloth to calm the bird and make it easier for you to remove the line and/or hooks.
- If the bird is hooked and the barb is exposed, either mash down the barb with pliers and back it out or cut off either end of the hook so that it can be easily removed. If the tip and barb are not exposed, push the hook on through so that it can be cut above the barb and removed.
- If the bird is entangled, use scissors or other tools to gently cut the line. Put the cut line in a trash bag or recycling bin. Monofilament recycling bins can be found at many piers, boat ramps, marinas and tackle stores. Find one near you at MRRP.MyFWC.com.
- Carefully check the bird for other hooks or line and remove them too. You may find that the bird has been caught before.
- If the bird is feisty, it is likely healthy enough to release. Point its head toward the water and release it. Let the bird take off on its own. Sometimes birds shake their feathers out, assess the situation, and then are ready to fly. Other times, they just take off. Either way, this represents a successful release. Congratulations!
What else can you do?
- Don’t feed birds extra bait or filleted fish carcasses. Feeding birds teaches them to approach fishermen, where they are more likely to be hooked. Birds generally eat small fish whole, and can easily digest those small bones, but the bigger bones of a filleted fish can perforate throats, stomachs and intestines. They might beg for these treats, but don’t give in. Dispose of the filleted bones where birds can’t get them.
- Cover your bait bucket so birds can’t help themselves.
- Properly dispose of your own fishing line and any that you encounter. Keeping this gear out of the environment is key to protecting wildlife.
- Don’t leave your line unattended. If a bird takes your bait, it will be hooked and you could lose your whole rig!
- Cast carefully to avoid being snared on trees, bridge piles, power lines or other obstacles.
- Help other fishermen learn what to do when they accidentally catch a bird. It’s pretty easy, once you know how.
To learn more about how you can help, contact Audubon’s Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries 813-623-6826 or visit fl.audubon.org. Learn more about Tampa Bay Watch at www.tampabaywatch.org or Sarasota Bay Watch at http://sarasotabaywatch.org/.