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Westie hooked!

January 18, 2018

New Year’s Day, 9 am, cold and windy weather, the beach inundated with high tide, waves washing over the sand into the lagoon, the lagoon emptying just as quickly through the breach to the sea.

Lagoon flowing through the beach breach (L. Loeher 12-02-17)

A few birders annually gather for early birding on New Year’s morning to begin their birding year with a bang. Malibu Lagoon is reliable for at least sixty species. You can’t predict the weather, but you can expect very few people on the beach.

Up ahead, near where we expected to find the Snowy Plover winter roosting colony, we spotted a small knot of people of widely varied ages gathered together, staring down at something. As we neared, checking lagoon-edge shorebirds for plovers and peeps, we saw a large gull on the sand at their feet. One of them ran over to us and said: “It’s got a big fishhook in it. Can you do anything?”

As Lu Plauzoles and I approached the bird, it – now alone – startled, leapt into the air and flew towards the surf zone. It got about ten feet before tumbling forward into a breaking wave. Now upside down, it washed up at my feet and I grabbed it, folding its wings close to the body. It did not resist.

It was a sub-adult Western Gull, probably a third-winter bird, with a black mantle and yellow bill tipped with an irregular black ring and the beginning of a red gonys spot on the lower mandible. A fishing lure was hooked into his left nostril. (I prefer “him” to “it,” although you can’t tell sexes in gulls without a very close and highly personal  examination.

Heddon Super Spook – Baby Bass color
Imagine you’ve got the end-hook of one of these suckers stuck in your face, and the other two treble-hooks snagged into your belly.

Gamakatsu treble hook

Further examination showed that he was hooked in two other locations, both on the belly a bit forward of his left leg. The lure was perhaps 4″ long with three treble-hooks. One hook of each treble-hook had snagged him, with the rear-end treble hook being the one in his nostril. Hooked in this manner, his head was twisted so far to the left that it was unable to fly any distance, explaining why he tumbled into the surf.

I wriggled the nostril-hook around but could not dislodge it. We needed to separate the hooks from the lure. The small scissors on Lu’s scout knife proved unequal to the task, and all we accomplished was my snagging the gloves of both hands on the exposed hooks.

MirrOlure Classic Series 52M Sinking Twitchbait
My professional fly-fishing brother-in-law loathes treble-hooks, and chooses to exert his skill with barbless hooks.

Meanwhile, the family of the bird’s discoverers tried to calm their young daughter-granddaughter, who was somewhere between eight and fifteen (I’m better at aging birds than humans) and was sobbing nearly uncontrollably, distraught by the bird’s plight. We decided to take the bird back to the parking lot where Lu had a Leatherman tool (with wirecutter) in his car. Lea – the distraught girl’s grandmother – offered her windbreaker as a wrapping for the bird. Nicely wrapped (see photo), the extremely calm bird accompanied us to the car, a ten-minute walk. Along the way we talked, and I discovered that Lea was a very long-term Malibu resident and had been the unofficial local animal rehabber for many years. Her quick action and willingness to sacrifice her windbreaker in order to comfort and protect Westie proved the point.

Westie in Lea’s arms and windbreaker.
(Joyce Waterman 1-1-18)

Separating the hooks from the body of the lure with the Leatherman’s pliers-wirecutter tool proved difficult. Lu and Lea steadied him – now “Westie” – on the trunk of my car while I struggled to snip the hooks from the lure. It may not be saying much, but it took all my strength to snip through the metal. This was really not the right tool for the job. I then snipped off the exposed barbs from the treble-hooks. I still could not get the hook out of the nostril. Throughout the entire procedure Westie did not struggle and I often saw him looking me in the eye. I felt as if he trusted us to do him minimal harm, and I chose to believe that, but the reality may have been that he was in shock and frozen with fear.

Westie bill closeups: every time he opened his bill, it made the hook wriggle around, so we band-aided it shut (& removed before release). Black fuzz around hook is fabric from my gloves. (Photo: Lucien Plauzoles 1-1-18)

Leatherman Sidekick

Don’t get me wrong; I like versatile tools like Leatherman and Swiss Army knife. I own several. But – generally speaking – the more versatile a tool, the more poorly it performs any particular task. Trying to snip very hard steel in very restricted quarters with the wirecutter (see photo) part of the long-nosed pliers was nearly impossible. We did it anyway.

We decided to leave Westie with what remained of the hooks still embedded in his body as Lea had volunteered to rush him up to the California Wildlife Center not far away. I left the now de-barbed portions of the treble-hooks intact to make it easier for the wildlife people to locate them. We all then set off in our various directions.

I learned later that Westie – once he realized that his bill was no longer painfully attached to his belly – became very “restive” as Lea described it, and started thrashing around in their car. They decided to return him to the portion of the beach where they found him.

We all hope Westie survived his ordeal, and is still living on the beach, despite the hooks embedded in his body.

Relative to the disasters of fire and flood recently experienced by the people of Southern California, Westie’s trauma may not seem to amount to much. But disasters and traumas come both large and small, and it’s difficult to judge whether the suffering of one person – or bird – is greater for that individual, than the suffering of another is for themselves. Over the course of a lifetime I have concluded that many – perhaps all – of the “lower” animals have feelings of pain and pleasure just as we humans do. It is our common animal heritage. The ability to experience both pain and pleasure have obvious survival value to the individual organism, and if the mechanism of natural selection does anything, it selects for characteristics which increase the probability of survival and procreation and selects against characteristics which don’t.

This is my best guess at how Westie became entangled. I suspect that he spotted the lure on the water and – thinking it was food – lunged at it with his bill, but instead got hooked in the left nostril. Lacking hands, he tried to dislodge the lure with his left foot, but instead managed to hook himself on the belly. Additional struggles only managed to embed the hooks further. When we found him, the lure had no leader line attached. If a fisherman had hooked him and cut the leader to free the bird, rather than attempt to either dislodge the hooks or take the bird to the animal rescuers, we’ll never know. With the proper tools, de-hooking a bird can be relatively easy. See the instructions below.

Channel Lock 436 6″ diagonal cutter

Channel Lock 6-inch Long Nose Pliers

It may not be much of a take-away lesson, but I decided to buy some more appropriate hook-removal tools and carry them with my field guide from now on. Channel Lock makes highly-rated tools, and I bought one of their 6″ diagonal cutter pliers. A larger cutter would cut bigger, tougher hooks but, knowing myself, I probably wouldn’t carry it because of the size and weight. I also got a cheap pair of long-nosed pliers, as their function in hook-removal is less critically-dependent on craftsmanship.

I used to fish when I was young. A sloppily-casting friend once hooked me in the shoulder with a treble-hook, and an hour of whacking away at my shoulder with a knife and razor blade taught me that the best way to extract a hook is to snip everything off except some of the shaft, then use long-nosed pliers to push the hook forward in an arc until the barb emerges through the skin, then pull it out by the barb-end. This is more unpleasant to experience than it sounds, but it’s better than yanking the hook backwards or trying to cut through flesh down to it. Believe me, I know.  [Chuck Almdale]

Read the information below for expert advice on how to de-hook a bird.

DON’T CUT THE LINE! Reel. Remove. Release.

Follow these steps to rescue a hooked bird: Reel in the bird. Remove the hook. Release the bird.
From Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

Watch the video demonstrating how to safely handle and unhook a bird.

      1. Enlist others for assistance if possible.
      2. REEL the bird in slowly and evenly.  Don’t try to shake the bird loose by jerking the line – it will inflict additional injury to the bird.
      3. If fishing from a pier, make sure that the bird remains on the water until a net, such as a hoop net, can be used to lift it onto the pier. Birds reeled up onto piers can be seriously injured, or can potentially damage fishing equipment.
      4. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.  Take extra care to protect yourself when handling long-billed wading birds and hooked-billed cormorants.

        When handling a pelican, keep the beak slightly open so the bird can breathe. (Photo: George Veazey)

      5. Firmly grasp the bird’s head behind the eyes.  Then fold the wings up gently but firmly against the bird’s body so that it can’t flap its wings, and hold the legs. Hold firmly but don’t strangle the bird.  If it is a pelican, you can hold the beak but keep the beak slightly open so the bird can breathe.
      6. Cover the bird’s head with a towel, hat, shirt, or other cloth. This will calm the bird and make it easier for you to remove the line and/or hook.
      7. REMOVE the hook by cutting the barb and backing the hook out.  If the barb is imbedded in the bird’s flesh, push the hook through until the barb emerges from the skin and then clip the barb.
      8. If the bird is entangled in line, use scissors, clippers or a knife to gently cut the line.  Place the cut line in a monofilament recycling bin, or cut the line into small (<3- inch pieces) and place in a lidded trashcan.
      9. Carefully check the bird over for other hooks or line and remove them too.

        Use scissors, clippers or a knife to gently cut fishing line and remove hooks. (Photo: Jeanette Edwards)

      10. If the bird is feisty, it is likely healthy enough to RELEASE.  Point its head towards the water and step back while you release the bird.  Let the bird take off on its own.  Sometimes birds shake their feathers out, assess the situation, and then are ready to fly.  Other times, they just take off.  Either way, this represents a successful release.
      11. If the bird has swallowed the hook, or is severely injured, take it to a local rehabilitator.
Check our website for a list of local rehabilitators.  Download Florida’s Pelican Rescue Brochure. For tips on how to avoid hooking seabirds in the first place, visit Florida’s protect our Florida seabirds.
  1. ethanski permalink
    January 19, 2018 3:22 am

    Gracias. Quite a story!

    Sent from my iPhone: No puppies or trees were harmed by this e-mail……. ….have a marvelous day!



  2. David Weeshoff permalink
    January 18, 2018 6:52 pm

    Please be aware that International Bird Rescue, in San Pedro, is the primary care rehabilitation organization for sick, injured, orphaned and oilded aquatic birds from as far north as Santa Barbara to the San Diego County line (and frequently from Malibu). IBR takes care of 2,000 or more aquatic birds (60+ species) every year – far too many with the type of injuries your bird suffered from, and even worse. Included in the treatment is comprehensive veterinary care with blood workup, surgery,X-ray, antibiotics, pain medication, physical therapy, ecto- and endo- parasite treatments, etc. and optimum nutrition, husbandry, flight evaluation, etc. (a non-profit)


    • Chukar permalink*
      January 19, 2018 5:01 pm

      Hi Dave:
      The Int’l Bird Rescue web address is . Notice the hyphen.

      We have it listed on our animal rescue blog page:

      We’ve always cited California Wildlife Center as being the place to go or call if in the Malibu area. In the “Westie” case, as the bird became very active before getting it to this nearby locale, the chances that it would sit still for a trip to San Pedro is just about nil.

      If you think that Malibu people should be contacting IBR rather than CWC for some reason, let me know.
      Yours, Chuck Almdale


      • David Weeshoff permalink
        January 19, 2018 5:32 pm

        IBR has an excellent, long term relationship with CWC. When they receive an aquatic bird typically they will stabilize the bird (hydrate, remove obvious hooks, etc.) then arrange for transportation to IBR for subsequent rehabilitation – we have the pools, large aviaries, waterfowl pens,etc. Had Westie gotten to CWC, very likely (s)he would have ended up at IBR. Other bird rehabilitators work in much the same way (Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, LaJolla Raptor Center,South Bay Wildlife, Animal Control departments).

        Of course, the closest rehabber is the best in an emergency.

        BTW, the hyphen is not necessary, but appreciated.


      • Chukar permalink*
        January 21, 2018 12:39 pm

        When I entered the web address which lacked the hyphen, my web browser (or virus protection) gave me one of those “Whoa! Are you sure you want to go there? This site may have been compromised!” messages. So I mention the hyphen. Not all browsers cough up these messages.


  3. Joyce Waterman permalink
    January 18, 2018 5:38 pm


    Really enjoyed reading your write-up. Loved all the tools too! Ever consider writing a book?

    ~ j

    Sent from my iPad



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