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Dr. Ellen’s Anhinga Rescue Story

Posted on September 15, 2015 By

On the Friday of a recent long Labor Day weekend I noticed a Florida Anhinga sitting on a post of my Rainbow River dock with something wrapped around his beak.

This particular Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) is one of the ‘regulars’ that like to fish from my dock, and I was immediately alarmed by what I saw.

Anhinga with beak wrapped in fishing lineFishing line is a common, lethal peril for water birds

Over the next five days I tried to capture him so that I could remove the mass of frayed fishing line that prevented him from eating. He could open his beak sufficiently to drink water and he likely was able to catch some tiny minnows while swimming; but obviously he was not able to catch anything of size. I watched numerous times as he came to the dock and popped up out of the water onto the dock with a beautiful little speared sunfish, only to leave it for dead.

As the days went by he lost more and more weight.

I tried every which way to get him but whenever I came within ‘grabbing’ distance he would bolt, which is exactly what his instincts told him to do. He didn’t know that I was only trying to help him. I approaching him often over the five days, in creative ways, but he would have none of it despite my stealth-like tactics.

On the 5th night of his terrible ordeal, he perched on a low branch on the opposite side of the river from the dock at sunset and remained there motionless until 10am the next morning, his head tucked down the small of his back and between his wings. He was utterly exhausted and I knew his days were numbered.

I had to leave the house early the next morning on an errand. When I returned an hour and half later the Anhinga was perched on his usual post at the dock. He was, however, unusually still with his head in the tucked position. I observed through the window that he did not even stir as a number of noisy kayakers paddled by him.

anhinga01Exhausted and weakened by his efforts to free himself

So I put a small wire clipper in my pocket and silently approached him until I knew I was in range to grab him…I hesitated…and he still didn’t stir…so I reached out and grabbed hold of him, clamping both my hands tightly around his folded wings and body.

Startled, he tried to flee but I had a death grip on him as my heart beat wildly. I quickly carried him the 50-feet up to the house deck, away from the dock, where I had placed a bath towel. While walking with him I held him as far away from my body as I could with outstretched arms as he struggled to free himself from my grip. He stretched his long neck threateningly in my direction but I knew to beware of that tactic from my many years of wildlife rescue experience.

Throughout all of this I was thinking how fortunate for me that he was in a weakened state or I might not have been able to hang onto him. The Anhinga is a large water bird. Its head is small at the end of a long snake-like neck. Its long, sharp bill aids it in hunting and the wings are broad, allowing it to soar.

The towel was a godsend. I laid him belly-down on the picnic table and smothered him in the thick towel so that he couldn’t move, pinning him down with my torso as well. In that position, and with my left hand cradling his entangled beak, I starting clipping away at the fishing line that was tightly wound around it. He was not a happy camper but I persisted, knowing that it was now or never.

It took me a several long minutes to extricate the line from around his beak. Not only was it wound around the upper half of his beak, but it was additionally wound around the lower half of his beak, and then it circled around his entire beak in a tangle. There was no way he could ever have extricated himself from that mess, even though he had valiantly tried to do so for days on end.

Throughout this he was amazingly calm, as if he knew that I was trying to help him.

After removing the encircling fishing line and still holding him down tightly, I checked his beak for damage, or for a small hook that might have been embedded inside his mouth, but I found nothing. His beak was intact. However I noticed 5 or 6 small serrated ridges on both upper and lower lips of his beak, on the inside of his mouth. I immediately recognized this as Nature’s way of helping him to keep fish in his mouth after catching them. The serrations pointed inward, toward his throat, which was part of the reason why he was never able to slip the knot of line off his beak, try as he might. Who knew!?

The surgery complete, I bundled him up in the towel and walked back down to the dock with him and gently slipped him into the water. In a flurry he was gone, and none too soon for him I am sure.

A number of kayakers were paddling by at the time of his release and stopped to watch. So I told them the story about his five terrifying days in hell, which was a good lesson for all. Maybe they will help keep an eye out for other wildlife perils on the river.

While watching him through binoculars a little later I saw him swim joyfully once again. He speared a nice fat fish that he brought up onto the shore and twisted and turned in his beak until it was properly pointed down his gullet. GULP!

Ain’t Nature grand?!

anhinga05Free at last and back to sunning himself on my dock


See Dr. Ellen’s page about the
perils of discarded fishing line.