An Anhinga Rescue Story
On the Friday of a long Labor Day weekend Dr. Ellen noticed a Florida Anhinga sitting on a post of her river dock with something wrapped around his beak.
This particular Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) is one of the ‘regulars’ that like to fish from her dock, and she was alarmed by what she saw.
Over the next five days she tried to capture him so she 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. She 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 considerable weight.
Dr. Ellen tried every which way to get him but whenever she came within ‘grabbing’ distance he would bolt, which is exactly what his instincts told him to do. He didn’t know that she was only trying to help him. She approached him often over the five days but he would have none of it despite her 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 Dr. Ellen knew his days were numbered.
She had to leave the house early the next morning on an errand. When she 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. She observed through the window that he did not even stir as a number of noisy kayakers paddled by him, which was highly unusual for him.
So she put a small wire clipper in her pocket and silently approached him until she was in range to grab him…she hesitated…and he still didn’t stir…so she reached out and grabbed hold of him, clamping both hands tightly around his folded wings and body before he knew what was happening.
Startled, the Anhinga tried to flee but Dr. Ellen had a death grip on him. She quickly carried him the 50-feet up to the house deck, away from the dock, where she had placed a bath towel. While walking with him she held him as far away from her body as she could with outstretched arms and her head back as he struggled to free himself from her grip. He stretched his long neck threateningly in her direction but she knew to beware of that tactic from many years of wildlife rescue experience.
How fortunate that he was in a weakened state or she 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. That neck can reach well behind him, beyond the mid-section of his back.
Dr. Ellen 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 her torso as well. In that position, and with her left hand cradling his entangled beak, she starting clipping away at the fishing line that was tightly wound around it. He was not a happy camper but she persisted, knowing that it was now or never.
It took 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 massive 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 procedure he was amazingly calm. Did he know that Dr. Ellen was trying to help him?
After removing the encircling fishing line and still holding him down tightly, she checked his beak for damage, or for a small hook that might have been embedded inside his mouth, but found nothing. His beak was intact. However she noticed 5 or 6 small serrated ridges on both upper and lower lips of his beak, on the inside of his mouth, knowing that this was Nature’s way of helping him to grip 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, Dr. Ellen 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 for sure.
A number of kayakers were paddling by at the time of his release and stopped to watch. So Dr. Ellen told them the story about his five terrifying days in hell, which was a good lesson for all. Maybe they will now help keep an eye out for other wildlife perils on the river.
While watching him through binoculars a little later she saw him swim joyfully once again. He speared a nice fat fish that he brought up onto the shore and twisted and turned and twisted it in his beak until it was properly pointed down his gullet. GULP!
Ain’t Nature grand?!
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