Monday, August 06, 2007

Nearly Death Line

I don't think Jason Thomas realizes that he saved a kingfisher yesterday. I don't think he's going to call my office asking about it, even. I do know that Jason Thomas learned firsthand the danger to wildlife caused by irresponsible fishermen who leave their lures, hooks and fishing line tangled in trees.

While I was in the swamp yesterday afternoon, Jason Thomas left a note, scrawled on an old paper bag, on my truck: "There's a bird tangled in fishing line hanging from a cypress tree in the lake. It's the first tree off the dock. Sincerely, Jason Thomas." I didn't even go down there to see what kind of bird it was, but headed straight for the boat, scissors, wirecutters and a pushpole (a retractable device that is used primarily in still waters). I don't know how long the bird had been there, hanging by his wing about 15 feet above the water level. The agency I work for has published posters since the 1970s titled "Death Line." The image of a dead bird tangled in fishing line is truly disturbing, but unfortunately public service announcements in Missouri don't help the literally thousands of birds and other animals that die a miserable death in discarded fishing line every year. Anglers continue to leave wads of old line on banks, in the water, in trees. Over 500 feet of fishing line was pulled from a sea turtle's stomach several years ago and I have untangled at least 2 egrets from 50 lb. test weight on the Gulf Coast. Nevertheless, I continue to post the dated posters and unwittingly call all fishing line "death line," as a sort of joke. Well, probably not anymore.

As soon as we paddled to the tree with the flapping bird, I quickly climbed as high as I could on the sad, dead cypress branches. I grabbed at the fishing line, trying to pull the bird closer. I climbed higher, trying to break the tangled branch with the pushpole. Leave it to the smart, sensible, fearless leader in the boat to suggest using the pushpole as a tool. He wrapped the line around the pushpole and then pulled down, thereby lowering the bird to a height we could reach. I climb dead branches, he uses his brain. Oh, the gulf that separates us.

The kingfisher's heart was racing, but he sat patiently as we untangled his wing, sacrificing only one end feather to the line. He wasn't able to fly off immediately, so I set him down in the shade by the water and went home. I checked on him an hour later; he was swimming around trying to flap his wings. I thought he would likely make a meal for an otter or a snapping turtle because the natural world can be cruel like that. Nature is ruthless (as described by Woody Allen: "one big restaurant") but man's irresponsibility to nature is worse.

This morning, my herpetologist spotted the kingfisher before I did. The bird was perched on a cypress knee near the water. We paddled towards him and he flapped off, swimming towards the bank. After checking the turtle nets and listening to two other kingfishers calling, divebombing and harassing the injured animal all morning, we finally caught him as he cowered under a buttonbush. We packed the bird into my frog's pet porter and my herpetologist drove him to a wildlife rehabilitator in Cape Girardeau.

The veternarian said they would keep us posted on the kingfisher's health. I'm sure the bird was famished by the time he arrived in Cape Girardeau, so hopefully he had a nice meal of minnows this afternoon. My job for the next week: remove any trace of fishing line from the recreational lake and thank Jason Thomas for his note.

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