It was a distressing enough sight for any animal lover. As the visibly troubled pelican perched on a Florida railing in early 2015, a fishing line could easily be seen dangling from its bill. The wire was clearly posing a grave danger – but luckily for the stricken seabird, a quick-thinking onlooker was swift to offer some life-saving assistance.
The ailing bird in question was spotted at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach near Tampa in Florida; a Gulf-of-Mexico resort loved for its great fishing by locals and tourists alike. However, many of its residents fear that discarded angling equipment around the pier could be putting local wildlife at risk. And, indeed, this appeared to be the case in February 2015. This particular pelican had become tangled in a length of old fishing line which had unfortunately wired its bill totally shut, leaving the poor seabird at serious risk of starving to death.
The dramatic rescue operation began on the pier when an anonymous red-shirted man slowly approached the beak-tied bird, taking great care not to frighten it away. A video of the encounter was subsequently uploaded to YouTube, and shows the unwitting pelican swiveling its head towards red-shirt just as he is about to leap forward and grab it. We see the magnificent seabird take wing, but – thankfully – it does not move quickly enough, and the altruistic animal lover is able to snatch at one of its legs as it attempts to fly away.
The pelican keeps flapping its wings, understandably desperate to escape but, nonetheless, red-shirt holds the seabird firmly and guides it down to the Pier 60 decking. Despite the massive predator’s attempts to free itself, we watch as the rescuer calmly manages to subdue the bird. He even carefully folds in its powerful wings between his legs so that it does not injure itself or anyone else. Red-shirt is quickly joined by another man, as a group of sightseers gather round to watch.
The video then shows the pair taking a good look at the patient, before the new arrival pulls out a knife and begins trying to cut the troublesome wire wrapped tightly around its bill. But the pelican becomes distressed and even attempts to take a peck at the knifeman as he tries to cut away at the fishing line. A woman behind the camera can be heard asking if the bird is really strong, to which the man merely replies, “You’ve got to be careful.”
It turns out that the fishing line is wound so tightly around the big bird’s bill that it leaves little room for the blade to maneuver, making the delicate rescue operation all the more difficult. But the two men appear to have had experience in handling dangerous wildlife. They stay cool and calm despite the pelican struggling, and do not seem fazed by the increasing throng of Clearwater Beach onlookers watching as they work.
There are some tense moments as the rescuers do their best to help the downed bird, while it appears to make angry attempts to hamper their efforts. Once the knifeman manages to cut away the offending fishing line from the animal’s beak, the pair still seem concerned about its welfare. Red-shirt is actually shown opening the pelican’s enormous bill, before sticking his head between its powerful jaws to check inside for anything else which may have been stuck in its feeding pouch.
Finally, the men both seem satisfied that the patient is now free from any debris – manmade or otherwise. The rescuer with the knife backs away as red-shirt keeps a firm grip on the wild creature. We then watch as he gently releases his hold and the seabird is free once more. The pelican unfolds and flaps its giant wings and, after a few steps, we see it take off from Pier 60 and soar off into the sky over the Gulf of Mexico.
As the fantastic feathered creature takes flight, the video reveals the appreciative bystanders crowded around, clapping and cheering. One woman can be heard saying, “Thank you sir, that was awesome.” Another Clearwater Beach onlooker, who posted pictures of the rescue online, was in full agreement and tweeted, “Totally awesome!! He could have gotten hurt, but when he saw this pelican, he knew what he had to do.”
Subsequently, the February 2015 footage of the Clearwater Beach rescue has been viewed almost one-and-a-half-million times on YouTube. Viewers of the viral video on the clip-sharing website were quick to praise red-shirt’s actions, with one commenting, “There are still some amazing human beings out there. Beautiful.” Another eagle-eyed YouTube user pointed out that a second bird could be seen in the short film, flapping overhead until its companion was released.
Other viewers were impressed by the pair’s seemingly expert handling of the stricken seabird. One wrote, “The skill he displayed in catching and subduing the pelican was incredible.” Another was sufficiently moved to call the unflappable men featured in the video “true heroes.”
But, amazingly, the Clearwater Beach pelican was not the only one of its kind in Florida who was lucky enough to have its rescue caught on camera in 2015. Later that year, anglers stepped in to help a pelican who had got caught up in not one, but three separate fishing lines near Fort De Soto Beach by St. Petersburg in The Sunshine State. This unfortunate feller presented a triple threat, with wire snagged around its beak, wings and webbed feet.
The Fort De Soto Beach fishermen managed to lift the pelican onto a pier and then removed a fishing hook from its bill using a pair of pliers. They untangled all of the fishing line before finally releasing the bird back into the sea. The rescue operation was filmed by one Tim Graham, who later reported that the pelican had swum away, having seemingly recovered fully from its fraught ordeal.
In a report from October 2017, Graham told U.K. tabloid the Daily Express that Fort De Soto Beach was a hotspot for feeder fish, which attracted anglers and pelicans alike. But he added that this scenario inevitably led to pelicans swimming or diving into fishing lines. Graham said, “In this case, the pelican had already been living with a lure in its wing and then decided to eat someone’s bait.”
Indeed, Florida is a popular spot for fishing, but hooks and lines and other angling equipment are often cast aside and can cause serious harm to seabirds, turtles and many other marine mammals. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has urged anglers not to cut their fishing lines if they accidentally hook a seabird. Instead, the government agency advises them to carefully reel in the creature, remove the hook and then release it.
Pelicans who have been unfortunate enough to have been injured by fishing gear, especially younger birds, are commonly admitted to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife – or CROW – in southwest Florida. Heather Barron, a director for the organization, informed the current affairs website News-Press in March 2017 about why this should be. Apparently, the way pelicans hunt is a highly skilled process and one which is very difficult to learn. Hunting birds will dive from as high as 30 feet, plunging down with great speed into the water in their quest for fish.
Barron went on to explain that consequently many young pelicans are not efficient hunters and often hang out at popular fishing areas in the hope of finding easy pickings. “They come in with hooks all over their bodies,” she told News-Press. “It’s not uncommon to see repeat offenders because they associate people with food.” Indeed, well-meaning humans may think they are helping the predators by feeding them, but very much the opposite can be true.
Mike Hammond, a scientific researcher at Lee County Parks and Recreation in Florida, came across a pelican with a hook and about two-feet of fishing line tangled in one of its wings in 2017. He has rescued dozens of pelicans over the years, but sadly when he took this sorry specimen to CROW it had to be euthanized. The fishing line had completely cut off the circulation to the bird’s wing, rendering recovery impossible.
Hammond warned News-Press that when anglers feed seabirds, it teaches the predators to attack fishing lines in order to get food. He said that discarded angling materials or even catfish used for bait could then get caught in a pelican’s throats, causing a slow and painful death. Hammond added, “I would encourage people to call CROW right away if they don’t have experience with animal rescues.”
So what can be done to help the pelicans of Florida and the other marine wildlife of that state? According to the advice from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, anglers should avoid feeding seabirds completely. Handing out tasty morsels could encourage them to gather in areas where there might be dangerous discarded fishing equipment lying around. Fishing enthusiasts are also advised not to tempt pelicans with bait, and to always make sure that it is kept in a closed container. However, the good news is that –according to Heather Barron and CROW – the number of pelicans and other wild birds being injured by angling equipment is declining. Nevertheless, it is always a great idea to spare a thought for the local wildlife wherever you cast your line.