Von Arx Wildlife Hospital rehabilitates pelicans injured by fishing gear
In almost every room at vox Arx Wildlife Hospital, veterinarians and volunteers are busy rehabilitating injured Brown Pelicans.
Since New Year’s Day, the hospital, which is part of Conservancy of Southwest Florida, admitted 15 pelicans who were snared and hooked by fishing gear.
The birds are housed in reptile rooms, animal nursery and other areas where injured birds are usually not kept. If the number continues to increase, animal crates may be needed to house the pelicans.
“Everyone comes and goes fishing,” said Joanna Fitzgerald, director of the hospital. “We have admitted 64 pigeons this season and that doesn’t bode well.
Large waterfowl are admitted after ingesting hooks and fishing lures or after accommodating these hooks in the wing or limb. The number of birds entering the hospital increases during the season, especially during the holidays.
Pelicans can be voracious and opportunistic eaters and seem to know that humans who fish at the pier are a good place to find food.
Sometimes people who fish at Naples Pier will throw their catch in the water or towards the waiting pelicans. Birds can learn that this is an easy source of food and will congregate there. When birds see a fish on the hook coiling, it does not see a hook and is accidentally caught.
Early Tuesday afternoon, amateur fishermen and regular fishermen were crowded onto the Naples Pier with tourists and beach goers.
About halfway to the pier, Ray Erickson, the pier and wildlife rescuer for the Conservancy, kept a close watch on the fishing lines and the pelicans that gathered.
“Beam! We have another bird,” shouted a voice from the far end of the pier.
Erickson was gone. He put down his own fishing rod, grabbed a large net, and started running towards the voice calling him.
Erickson patrols the pier part-time to help birds that get tangled in fishing gear. Before his sprint to the end of the pier, he had already sent two pelicans to von Arx and said he had freed a few more from the tangled lines.
“It happens and it is not on purpose,” he said. Birds sometimes get tangled on fishing lines, regardless of the actions of the fishermen.
The weight or test of the fishing line and whether it is braided or monofilament should be taken into account when fishing from the pier.
A strong, braided line is best as the weight and struggle of the bird will not cause the line to break. This is crucial so that the bird can be raised and the hooks removed. Otherwise, if the line breaks and the bird flies away, the untreated injury could be fatal.
Sometimes the wound is superficial and the bird can be untangled and released.
The brown pelican’s wound at the end of the jetty was not superficial. After spending five minutes maneuvering the bird over the net, Erickson was able to hoist it onto the pier. The hook was lodged in the bird’s wing and required veterinarian care to remove it.
“It’s best if someone who is fishing stays calm and releases the tension on the line,” said Fitzgerald. “The bird will struggle immediately, so the person must cry out for help because the locals will know what to do.”
Once a bird is admitted to the von Arx Hospital, it undergoes gradual rehabilitation. The bird is first assessed in an intensive care unit, then transferred to the general population once it is well enough, and eventually heads to an outdoor pool until it is ready to be released.
The hospital has 16 pelicans indoors and another 21 in the outdoor pool. Since November, 64 pelicans have been admitted.
“If we can get them in quickly, it’s a lot easier to take the hook out,” Fitzgerald said. “If we wait too long, the hook can get lodged in internal organs. “
Pelicans held in hospital are housed in cages with enough space for the bird to stand up and move around. Some larger cages have heat lamps to speed up rehabilitation. Once a bird is sent to the outdoor pool and can fly steadily, it will be released. The rehabilitation process can take two to four weeks, Fitzgerald said.
Further north on Sanibel, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic also rehabilitates birds admitted with hook injuries.
CROW is part of an initiative called “Mind Your Line,” said Brian Bohlman, staff member.
CROW works in conjunction with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the City of Sanibel and others to educate anglers about monofilament angling and the environment. There are garbage cans all over the island and in places like the causeway where excess line can be recycled.
Back at the pier, Erickson transported the injured pelican to the road leading to the beach access. He waited for a beach patrol vehicle to transport the bird to von Arx. He has worked part-time on grants and has been fishing on the pier since the 1980s.
“It’s the only job I’ve had and want to be,” he said. Erickson drove three pelicans at a time to von Arx, occasionally having to put one on his lap as he cruised through traffic.
“It’s just a matter of education,” he said. “People need to know not to throw fish at birds or cut the line if they accidentally catch a bird. “