Tue 20 Oct 2009
It was supposed to be a few serene and sunshiny moments this morning spent before work on the north bank of Ballona Creek tossing old bread that Susan had disposed of in the trash can to the pigeons, ducks, coots, gulls and crows seemingly ever-present by the Centinela overpass. And as you can see from the timelapse below caught by the cam I set up where I sat, it started off as such until the pigeons and ducks made room for a gull who stepped before me front and center clearly in dire straits from a three-pronged fishhook embedded deep in its mouth that prevented it from closing its beak. Or eating, or at least eating regularly and properly.
As the first birds on scene frantically closed in gulping my first lobs of bread bits, I saw the gull about 20 yards away and I was curious as to why its beak was open, then it moved a bit and the sun glinted off a cut strand of fishing line dangling out its mouth and my heart sank knowing that unless this bird got assistance in removing the hook — and fast — the poor thing was very much at risk of a horrible death by starvation, or perhaps freezing or drowning since it couldn’t pay the meticulous attention to its feathers that birds must in order to survive.
That’s when it started coming closer to me. And closer, until as you can see in this image above, the bird stood stoically before me just beyond my arms’ reach attempting in vain to pick up pieces of bread from the concrete bank.
Strangely, the other birds cleared out, leaving just me and a bunch of bread and the poor gull who though unwilling to come any closer to me was fearless or desperate enough to get so close to me. Taking food directly from my outstretched hand, all it could do was drop them because the hook blocked anything from going down its hatch.
Over the course of several minutes (I have video of it but it’s a big file I’ll need to upload later seen in the video below) we sat there with me surprised it didn’t leave and knowing I had to attempt to catch it and get that hook out of there. But how? I knew if I tried something of a lunge/grab and missed the bird would retreat and I’d be lucky to draw it so close to me again. I also didn’t want to risk driving the bird away by sliding closer to it, so I just sat there, leaning forward offering it bread and talking to it until I figured the best shot I had was to get a hold of the dangling fishing line and attempt to reel the bird in.
So then I held out both hands with bread in each. The first attempts to grab the filament failed, but on a subsequent try I leaned as far forward as possible and while it attempted to grab the bread in my right hand I was able to get a hold of the line in my left, making sure I could wrap it around my finger before pulling.
At the first tug, the bird freaked and tried to fly away, but thankfully my grip held and I pulled the bird to me where I tucked it against my side with one part of me overjoyed and the other part of me wondering what the hell do I do now.
See, the hook was embedded far worse than I thought. One insidious barb had deeply buried itself up into the roof of its beak, and the other had fully impaled the underside of its tongue. Small consolation: the third barb hadn’t done any damage. But it looked as if the whole thing had been there awhile.
Obviously the bird, though weakened and not putting up too intense a struggle, was not at all happy with what I was doing and while I was trying to get a hold of the hook managed a bite on the ring finger of my left hand that superficially sliced the skin across the first knuckle. It even snapped at my chin a few times. I didn’t blame it one bit. It was the carelessness of people that did this and since I was a people I deserved its wrath, which I actually took as a good sign that the bird was spirited and healthy enough to try to want to hurt me.
The other thing trying to make me bleed was the third barb of the hook itself. I worked on freeing the hook from its upper beak first and managed to get it out, wishing for a pair of wire cutters to snip the two sharp tips now exposed. . At one point the bird thrashed enough to reset the barb into the hole in its beak, but it came out much easier the second time, with me trying to be encouraging and calming and probably not doing either very well.
The barb fully pierced through the tender tissue beneath its tongue was much more difficult to extract and clearly more painful for the bird. I lost track of how many failed attempts I made, which were followed by periods of holding the bird close and quiet to soothe it, but finally I gave up trying to finesse its removal and just pushed from one side and pulled from the other until at last the dastardly hook was out, and hopefully without creating much in the way of new damage.
Revel in my success? You bet I did, but quietly as I held the bird close for a few moments before setting it at my feet where it flapped a bit before collapsing to a sitting position and I feared it might have gone into shock.
“Don’t you die on me after all we’ve been through,” I told it, and God bless it if the bird didn’t stand back up and in another minute or so start working its beak open and fully closed like it had forgotten what that was like. And when it started voraciously gobbling some of the bread that surrounded it, and yeah I choked up. Hard.
Curiously enough, at that point the other birds moved back in for a second course, almost as if they left understanding the need to give us our space and came back knowing the emergency procedure was over.
Me? yeah, well… as you can tell on the aftermath clip below I’m pretty much a big old baby, sobbing and blathering — for joy and relief, coupled with the amazement at how it seemed the gull knew I could help it and put its trust in me to do so. That’s me anthropomorphizing, and more accurately it came just because I was an immediate and easy source of food. But it turns out it came to the right person.
Honestly, it’s not many times I’ve felt so fulfilled. Watching that gull eat a few more bites before slowly making its way down the bank from me to the creek’s edge, it was a welcome sight to see it take what I can imagine was a long-overdue hook-free drink of water.
Tucking the hook away in my backpack as a memento I emptied the rest of the bag of bread onto the bank for the gathered birds to scramble after and gobble down, and as I remounted my bike I gave the gull one last look and then rode in to work just dumbfounded by all that had to fall into place for this encounter not only to happen but to end so positively. What if Susan hadn’t thrown that bread away? What if I hadn’t found it in the trashcan? What if I hadn’t been inspired to cut it up and carry with me to give to the birds? What if I had picked another feeding place on my ride? What if the bird had picked another spot to rest? What if the bird had been less exhausted or less hungry? What if there hadn’t been any fishing line attached to the hook?
And the answer to any of those questions is the bird would still be out there getting weaker and hungrier, its feathers in increasing disarray.
But now it isn’t getting weaker or hungrier or dirtier. Or at least it’s got a chance to recover and live its life — hopefully spent avoiding the infuriating discards of lazy fisherman who would rather irresponsibly cut their lines and leave their hooks out there where they can do such horrible things.