We are pretty fortunate in this area now to have lots of wildlife rehabbers, as well as volunteers to capture and transport injured wildlife. In addition, we are able to use a chat app to communicate, which means volunteers can be dispatched more quickly and we can make sure the animal gets to the appropriate rehabber. Quite often with wildlife, there is a grey period where they do need to come in for care, but they aren’t quite weak enough to catch. It can be disheartening to not be able to get the animal that needs help, especially when you see they definitely need it. However, for most animals, their instinct is to survive and if that means to run from the scary human predator, that’s exactly what they will do. Now most people may not have the opportunity to chase after and catch injured and scared wildlife, but if you ever do have the chance, know this: a vulture that can’t fly can still run like a bullet train.
The other day I had the wonderful opportunity to pick up and transport a Black vulture to Lisa. This particular vulture had a little bit of a history. He was out in Suffolk and had a droopy wing, unable to fly. A homeowner spotted him and called one of the local wildlife rehab rescue and transport folks. I don’t remember which group the homeowner originally contacted, but I know that several people went out to attempt to catch this vulture. I say attempt because the first several tries were unsuccessful. The homeowner would call, rescuers would go out, and the vulture would run. As a rescuer, you get very used to sprinting but this vulture had the upper hand, or upper leg when it came to sprinting. I wasn’t on any of the original rescue attempts, but I know the folks that went tried their best. Suffolk is a bit of a distance from many of the volunteers, but each time they would drive out there, try to catch the vulture, and leave with an empty crate. This went on for, I believe, several weeks and there were mixed thoughts among the community about what to do. Clearly, he was getting food somehow so maybe he would be fine? But without the ability to fly, how long would he survive? And is that merely surviving on the minimum possible, because it certainly wouldn’t be thriving?
Eventually, Lisa and the homeowners talked. They were animal lovers and wanted to help however they could. They made the drive to pick up the trap cage and learned how to set it up with some meat for the injured vulture. During this time, they got closer and closer to the bird, and really started to have a connection to him. After two, maybe three days of them putting chicken out, they were able to lure the injured vulture into the cage. Finally, Lisa got the call that the vulture was secured and it was posted in our rescue and transport chat that someone needed to go pick him up. I used my husband’s pickup (with the strict instructions of “no smelly animals in the cab”) and went to pick up the vulture. It seemed like the entire family met me outside to see the bird off. The kids had named the bird “Delores,” though based on his size, I think it could be a male. When I told them that, they decided his name would be “Delorian.” They were all very happy the trap worked and they were able to catch him. The woman helped me load him into the bed of the truck and asked me if we could release him back at her house when it was time for his release. I informed her that we always like to do that when possible, and we really appreciate all their help to get the bird. The kids were very energetic in their goodbyes and asked if he could be their pet. I told them that you can’t keep vultures as pets, but they do have very good memories so if he is able to be released back by their house, there is a good chance he would would remember their kindness and food. I covered up the trap cage to transport him and the kids all kept saying goodbye until their mom made them go back inside so I could take the bird to Lisa.
I’ve worked with animals in some capacity for over two decades now and yet, I’m still awed and inspired by how many people are willing to help and the lengths they will go to to do it. This family went above and beyond to help a bird in their yard. This a species that many people will call disgusting, creepy, off-putting, evil, or many other negative adjectives. Despite their appearance and some of their bodily functions, vultures are such an important part of our environment and they should be appreciated and protected. Vultures, along with other scavengers, help to clear out carcasses of deceased animals. A lot of diseases stop with them since their stomach acids can break them down and ensure they don’t get passed on. Without them, roadkill would sit there and rot until some person decided to remove it. While the fact that vultures poop down their legs to cool off may disgust you, the smell of an opossum rotting in front of your house in 95 degree weather would be much worse, bringing flies and disease with it. So while vultures may have some of the more gross behaviors, they really do improve the environment. And they aren’t quite as yucky as they could be. The reason they have bald heads is to actually help keep them clean! A head without feathers is much easier to keep clean from the carrion you’ve eaten!
Next time you see a vulture, whether it is soaring above or getting a nice meal on the ground, tell it, “thank you. Thanks for keeping our area clean!” Just don’t stand under one in a tree on a hot day while you are talking to it! And if you see an animal in need of help, give us a call, even if you don’t think that animal is catchable. Sometimes what can be done to help might be surprising. Thank you all for caring about the animals!
** Please don’t feed wildlife without the direction of local experts or officials. The family feeding this vulture did so directly under the direction of wildlife rehabber, Lisa Barlow. Feeding wildlife often puts them in compromised situations and can put them more in danger. In many areas, feeding wildlife is also illegal.**
As most of you know, rehabilitation is volunteer work. The majority of people who do this are working other paid jobs or sometimes retired. And for some of us, our paid work still allows us to work with animals or nature. For me, I am a deckhand on local tour boats for dolphin and whale watching. This means, I also get to enjoy seeing birds every day and if you know me, you know birds are really my thing. It also means, I get an up close and personal view of birds that sometimes need to come into care, but aren’t quite down enough to be caught. This may include thin, frost bitten pelicans, lonely razorbills who didn’t migrate with the rest of the edge (yes, that is their collective noun!), or other birds that have an issue which doesn’t allow them to survive and thrive the way they should. This is sometimes heartbreaking to witness. We want to help all of the animals, but that grey area when they need help but aren’t weak enough to be caught is incredibly frustrating. Not that we ever want the animals to be weak or struggling, but the earlier they can come into care when it is necessary, the better.
So that was a lot of verbal setup to bring me to what I witnessed the other day while our boat was headed out. In Rudee Inlet, the birds were flying all around. Gulls, pelicans, and cormorants were diving into the water for their food. There was a lot of noise and activity, which is always enjoyable. One of my coworkers is also a birder, so we really like pointing out lifers to each other such as the Northern harrier for me and the Boat-tailed grackle for him. But I digress. This particular day, a pelican flew overhead that caught my eye. Dangling from its legs was fishing line and a weight.
I absolutely have nothing against responsible fishing. I also love eating sustainable seafood. And I totally understand that accidents happen and sometimes your line gets caught in shoreline brush or trees or that large fish snaps it while getting away. However, this pelican flying with the dangling weight had me seeing red. Why you ask? Because this is WAY TOO COMMON. By far, this is not the first bird that has become entangled in fishing line and it will not be the last. Do I have any way to know if this particular one was completely accidental or irresponsible and preventable? No.
But working with all of the people who spend time rescuing tangled birds, I have to believe that the majority of it is preventable. I can’t tell you the number of calls and photos we get of herons and egrets with line wrapped around their bills, slowly starving them. Our rescuers have gone out on calls to catch a tangled bird, only to find a dead one hanging in a tree next to a no fishing sign. That is absolutely preventable. No fishing means no fishing. Period. Also, if you can have your boat close enough that your line gets tangled in the tree when you cast, you can likely get close enough to retrieve the snapped line. And while sometimes a surprisingly large fish that you can’t land may snap your line, as often as possible, use line with the appropriate test strength for the fish you are expecting to catch.
All of that discarded and broken gear doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disintegrate or break down. It gets eaten, tangled, or embedded in wildlife. Sometimes it ends up in nests. Let the folks who band baby osprey for OspreyWatch tell you their stories of tangled nestlings that are too far gone to be saved, where euthanasia is the most humane option. Lisa recently took in a pelican for being thin and cold stunned, only to find a hook that had been in its wing so long, it was only noticeable upon full physical examination and pat down. Thankfully, that pelican is recovering and other than some likely initial pain, didn’t have long lasting impacts from the hook. Every wildlife rescuer has seen the photos of the tangled birds. Some recover. Some don’t. Some are dead before we get to them. And some, like this pelican that flew by me, will go a little longer with this extra weight on him. Maybe it will fall off or he will be able to preen or pull it off. Maybe he will lose his leg from the line cutting into him. Maybe the worst will happen. It’s pretty likely we will never know his outcome.
If you enjoy fishing, please keep fishing responsibly. But just like those Mylar balloons, remember that your fishing gear doesn’t disappear. It has to go somewhere when it’s out there. Maybe it just stays tangled on the bridge or tree. But maybe it ends up in an animal’s stomach. Or wrapped around them. Why chance it? Even if you don’t care about the birds (which, tbh, you probably do if you are reading this), do you want to eat a fish that has swallowed someone else’s lead weight? And don’t even get me started on dolphins that get tangled in discarded gear and drown.
So what can you do to help? I don’t like being all doom and gloom. If you are already the responsible fisher, continue doing that. If you are in a smaller boat near a shoreline and see someone else’s tangled or discarded gear and can reach it, cut it down. Dispose of fishing gear properly. Learn and teach about the effects on nature. Locally, the Virginia Aquarium, as well as the Monterey Aquarium in California have some wonderful resources online about sustainable seafood and good practices. If you see an animal in need of help, contact us or your local wildlife rehabber. If it is a marine mammal or sea turtle (because they also get affected by fishing gear), contact the local stranding center. Yes, accidents can still happen. But when you know better, do better. The birds, and fish, and turtles, and dolphins, and all of the rehabbers and rescuers thank you for it.