At a quarter to five a couple of Sundays ago, just as we were completing the day’s tasks and getting ready to leave the clinic, the phone rang. An employee at Pacific Seafood, a fish processing facility on the Eureka waterfront, had spotted a gull nearby who was tied to some fishing line. We quickly fed the last couple of patients and headed out to take a look.
Fish hooks and fishing line cause numerous wildlife injuries. The toll fishing gear takes on marine birds, reptiles, and mammals (not to mention the targeted species!) numbers in the thousands along the California coast alone each year. (see study here) According to the Humane Society of the United States (link here) over a million marine animals are killed each year by “longline” fishing at sea.
(a collection of hooks and other items removed from patients at Humboldt Wildlife Care Center)
Hook and line injuries are commonplace for all wildlife rehabilitators, especially in locations where wildlife and people co-exist in large numbers – San Francisco, Monterey Bay, Los Angeles…
When we arrived on the scene, the fellow who called was standing a few yards from an adult Western Gull (link), who was trapped on the wharf, a hook in his (or her) neck attached to a line tied to the railing. Someone had been fishing and left his rig in the water. The gull had tried to eat the bait and gotten hooked.
We netted the gull and wrapped her (or him) in a towel. We made a quick examination to see if the hook could be immediately removed. Sometimes, with a quick snip of the barbed end, the hook comes out, and the small wound is fine to heal on its own – the bird can be released right away. In this case, however, the hook was small and difficult to see in the fading late afternoon light. For safety’s sake, we brought the gull back to our Bayside clinic.
Under the examination light, the small hook was easy to see. After removing it, we found a deep pocket of pus inside the gull’s mouth – an old infected injury. The bird’s feet also had early stage pressure sores caused by a life spent on concrete.
There is no getting around the fact that in a very short time modern industrial civilization has re-shaped the world that we share with other animals, other life. Derelict fishing gear, automobiles, ocean pollution, climate disruption, domestic animals, glass windows, resource extraction, – the list is long and each threat is new. All the marine birds we see today have existed as they are for at least 20 million years (Gaston 2004). Each of this gull’s injuries was the result of civilization’s altered environment.
The infection in our patient’s mouth required a course of antibiotics. We gave the first dose and set up safe housing for the night, fed some fish that had no sharp surprises, turned off the lights and headed home.
The next morning we moved the bird to our aviary built especially for gulls, pelicans, and cormorants – all marine birds who spend time in and out of water. With a large pool, an artificial rock wall, high perches and a substrate (all surfaces that the birds might perch on) intended to relieve the constant pressure on their delicate feet, this aviary is a key part of our rehabilitation program. When treating wild animals, patient housing plays a leading role in their recovery.
Over the course of the next ten days the gull’s condition swiftly improved. The deep wound inside his mouth healed, the punctures from the hook healed. Her (or his) feet had improved too.
Last Tuesday the gull was released at North Jetty. Once out of the box, the bird took time to preen – which is how birds maintain their feather condition. Besides allowing flight, the feathers of all birds protect them from the elements. For aquatic birds this is particularly necessary – as warm blooded animals who live in the cold North Pacific need an impeccable array of feathers simply to surivive. Once satisfied that all was well, s/he launched from the rocks out over the inlet to Humboldt Bay and was gone.
There are many things you can do to help prevent this kind of injury to wild animals:
- Most importantly, if you fish, mind your gear. Try not to leave anything in the environment. Line, hooks, weights, all of these can produce fatal and torturous wounds.
- If you find derelict gear in the environment, remove it! Every hook removed from the docks, beaches and river banks is a hook we won’t ever have to remove from a bird’s mouth.
- Pass this information along!
- Support wildlife rehabilitation. Our ability to do this work depends directly on community support. BAX/HWCC is not funded by the county, state or federal governments. Your contribution makes our work possible. Thank you!
photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX
Gaston, Anthony J., Seabirds: A Natural History, 2004 Yale University Press