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For the Birds: Caught on a line, but not cast away

20190701-MAG-for the birds

An agitated eastern kingbird after being cut down from a tangle of fishing line.

It began with a bird pooping on my forehead and it finished with me tipping over the canoe in a mucky, heavily vegetated part of the lake. The adventure was well worth it, however, as we successfully untangled and freed an eastern kingbird from the death grip of abandoned snagged fishing line.

I was sitting in my home office writing away about something when I saw out the window my 12-year-old son sprinting up the road and turning onto the driveway. He was fishing with two of his friends at the nearby fishing hole so I briefly panicked that someone had gotten hurt; perhaps a barbed hook embedded in a thumb or something like that.

I opened the window and yelled down: “What’s wrong, Will?”

“There’s a bird stuck on fishing line dangling from a tree,” he said. “Come help it. It’s freaking out. I feel so bad for it.”

I rushed to the car and drove to the spot, even though it’s literally only a few hundred yards away. Nagging tendonitis in my foot has prevented me from making that walk — or any other walk for that matter — for weeks now.

“I think if we go through the woods we can get to it,” Will said as he pointed out the bird.

I recognized the bird as an eastern kingbird. The white band at the tip of its tail gave it away.

“I don’t think so, Will. All that vegetation is growing from the water so we’ll never reach it from land. We can probably get it with the canoe.”

I hobbled back to the car as quickly as possible and fetched the canoe. I used one strap only around the middle of the canoe to fasten it to the car since I was going such a short distance.

Back at the fishing hole, Will hustled to help me get the canoe off the car and to the shore.

“I’ll sit up front; you sit in the back and paddle us to the bird,” I told Will.

“I’ll take photos, too, dad. Where’s your phone?”

Will got us into the weeds and immediately the frantic bird crapped right on my forehead above my left eye. I didn’t even notice it, but Will let out a huge laugh to let me know.

“Guys! The bird pooped on my dad’s head!” he called excitedly to his friends.

I didn’t care about it at the moment. I just wanted to help the bird, which was now even more frantic with us closing in on it.

I grabbed some sturdy stems and pulled us into the vegetation even more to prevent us from drifting as I was soon to have a knife and, hopefully, a bird in my hands. We stopped right below the bird. I stood up carefully and extended for the bird. It was just out of reach.

“Give me the paddle, Will,” I said.

I used the paddle to pull down the branch a few inches. I grabbed it and pulled the branch, bird and tangled mess of fishing line toward me. Wow, that’s a lot of fishing line, I thought to myself. With my free hand, I used the knife of my trusty Leatherman to cut the line above the bird’s wing. I closed the knife, tossed it on the floor of the canoe, and sat down with the highly agitated kingbird in my hand. It bit at my hand and made me thankful that it wasn’t a great blue heron. It also displayed its red crown, which is always present but not often seen in kingbirds.

A length of fishing line immediately came free, but there was still line wrapped tightly around the wing. I held the bird and pulled gently on the end of the line. Will used the knife to cut the line as close to the wing as possible.

I dug in a little more to make sure there wasn’t a hook stuck in the wing. The kingbird obliged by extending its wing to expose the wound. Thankfully, there was no hook and the remaining piece of fishing line that had held the bird captive fell to the floor of the canoe. The wound did not look serious and I breathed a sigh of relief that a hook was not involved.

Satisfied that the bird was free from all fishing line, I opened my hand to see if it was able to fly. In about half a second the kingbird burst out of my hands and disappeared into the woods.

The kingbird was lucky. Lucky that Will went fishing that afternoon and was able to spot it. Lucky that we had a canoe handy to access the water. Lucky that it was tangled relatively close to the water instead of higher up and out of reach. Lucky it was only tangled and not hooked.

I looked around and noticed that the trees in the area were riddled with abandoned lines, bobbers, hooks, sinkers and lures. Will steered me to them and I pulled down the ones that were in reach. I pulled down the tangle that had snared the kingbird and noticed the bird’s nest was in a branch about a foot above the twisted line.

Thankfully we were only a few feet from shore when I got a little too confident in my reaching and swamped the canoe. Swamped is a good term because we tipped over in thick, slimy aquatic vegetation. My legs felt for the bottom of the lake but only dug themselves deeper into a spaghetti bowl of slippery stems, roots and goodness knows what else.

Will, thankfully, had the wherewithal to immediately take my phone out of his pocket and toss it onto the shore. The phone was fine and Will scored points with his father for acting so quickly despite being dumped into a mucky mess.

We lumbered onto shore — me very gingerly on the uneven terrain — and dragged the half-full canoe onto land. Our legs were blacked by bits of partially decomposed leaves that fell into the water over the last several years.

Once on land we had little laugh and rejoiced as two kingbirds flew and chattered among the trees just off the shore.

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