Fishing for Answers: South Florida vets treat seabirds amid seasonal surge in injuries

(WSVN) - With freezing temperatures up north, both snow birds and seabirds have flocked to South Florida, and with all the extra people and birds interacting along our coast, there is a surge in injured seabirds. 7’s Kevin Ozebek has our special report “Fishing for Answers.”

With hooks, lures and bobbers, this looks like a master fisherman’s tackle box. But it has all been removed from pelicans, terns and gulls by Dr. Renata Schneider and her team at the South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale.

Dr. Renata Schneider, South Florida Wildlife Center: “He’s lost some feathers in here, so it makes me wonder if there wasn’t some line wrapped around the feathers.”

Every year about 300 birds arrive here suffering injuries from fishing lines and hooks, and March is by far the busiest month, because sun seekers are in South Florida to catch rays and catch fish.

Pelicans often trail right behind, hoping to steal an easy meal.

Dr. Renata Schneider: “Listen, I mean, it’s a bird brain. I love them, they’re beautiful, they have wonderful instincts, but they go where the fish are.”

Fishing line got entangled in one bird’s wing, injuring a tendon crucial for flying. Dr. Schneider performs both laser and physical therapy on this bird every other day.

Dr. Renata Schneider: “I am just very gently going into the esophagus.”

When they swallow a fisherman’s bounty, hooks get lodged in their throats. For big birds, vets reach right in and grab the hook.

Dr. Renata Schneider: “I think we have success. There’s a hook fragment right there.”

Smaller birds like this royal tern can be testier patients. For this one, surgery may be needed.

Dr. Renata Schneider: “You can see the line coming out of its mouth.”

The X-ray shows this little guy has a hook he just swallowed in his stomach and a second one in his cheek.

Maggie Small, wildlife vet tech: “The amount of hooks you can pull out of a bird, the size of the hooks you can pull out of a bird, it’s amazing what these animals can endure.”

If a seabird swallows your catch, it’s best to carefully reel the bird in so you can take it to a wildlife center. At most South Florida piers, there are cages so you can safely get the bird to a vet.

Hannah McDougal, rescue and release coordinator, Pelican Harbor Seabird Station: “Our biggest piece of advice is just don’t cut the line.”

Hannah McDougal with the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami warns many birds will not survive if you let them fly off with a hook. She has seen hooks tear up a pelican’s pouch.

Kevin Ozebek: What are the most hooks you’ve seen in in one bird?

Hannah McDougal: “Seven.”

Hannah already has a large collection of fishing gear she has removed from birds so far this year, and unfortunately, she’s bracing for a busy month ahead.

Seabirds can also choke on the fish bones, so wildlife officials say, when you clean your fish, make sure you properly dispose of fish scraps where birds can’t get them.

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