Background of the Bird Rescue Program

The Cedar Key Bird Rescue (CKBR) Program is a volunteer organization that responds to reports of injured birds, especially pelicans with fishing related injuries (i.e., entanglement or throat obstruction). CKBR was formed in response to the high number of bird entanglements in Cedar Key, an area identified as a bird entanglement hotspot by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). While volunteers often respond to all kinds of injured birds, the specific focus of the program is to address seabird entanglement and injury caused by interactions with fishing tackle. CKBR is a partnership between the Cedar Keys Audubon and the University of Florida (UF IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station and Florida Sea Grant). The University of Florida provides volunteer training workshops and materials, houses bird rescue equipment, and keeps records for the program. The Cedar Keys Audubon is the major source of volunteers for the program and holds an important role in educating the public through events and outreach projects.

Signage for the program (pictured right) was placed at the top five shore angling locations around town: the #4 Bridge fishing pier, Airport Rd. bridge, the intersection of G and 1st streets, the City of Cedar Key Marina, and the City of Cedar Key Fishing Pier. Signs give phone numbers for volunteers that are trained to respond to the injured bird reports, and who have contact information for additional volunteers. CKBR depends on these trained volunteers to respond to reports called in by the public. The four lead volunteers (Tiffany Black, Capt. Doug Maple, and Deborah Anderson/Crosby Hunt) have their phone numbers listed publicly on the signs posted around Cedar Key. These leaders serve as the initial point of contact for the public. As of May 2017, there were a total of 28 volunteers listed on a phone tree. These volunteers are trained to respond and assist injured birds, either as a primary rescuer or a transporter should a bird require attention from a rehabilitation specialist.


Given the volunteer nature of the program, CKBR does not expect to be able to respond to 100% of reports received. However, the current track record of the program is extremely positive and very few calls go unanswered. An important function of the program is to ensure the public that the community of Cedar Key is taking action to address bird injuries. The existence of CKBR gives the public the ability to report an injured bird and feel assured that a trained person will respond. Currently, no local, state, or federal agency offers a similar service in Cedar Key. Prior to the formation of CKBR, the need to address high numbers of bird entanglements went largely unanswered, save for the efforts of a few individuals with no support system.

Program Impact

Since the program’s inception in August 2016, CKBR has accepted 70 calls about bird injuries, most of which have involved entangled juvenile brown pelicans. Of these calls, 22 have resulted in a successful release or recovery of a bird that would have otherwise assuredly perished from its injuries (example pictured right). Of the other 48 calls, many were attempted rescues where the bird escaped capture and others involved birds that were too severely injured to survive, even after transport to a rehabilitation facility.

Audubon representatives report that local public education efforts have resulted in a marked decrease in the number of anglers that routinely discard large fish scraps where pelicans can eat them. This is excellent news because large fish carcasses and scraps can become lodged in the throat or digestive tract of pelicans, which are adapted to eat and digest only small bait fish. Overall, volunteers for CKBR have donated over 210 hours of time to resounding to injured bird reports, worth an estimated $4,698.00 to the Cedar Key community.

Over time, CKBR hopes that overall reports of injured birds will decline as public education efforts help more anglers understand how to correctly unhook a tangled bird from fishing tackle. In addition to local education efforts, the FWC recently launched a public education campaign (Don’t cut the Line!) that officials hope will help address sea bird entanglements in Cedar Key and other hotspots across the state. For more see this post and the FWC’s Don’t Cut the Line site.

So what should you do if you hook a pelican while fishing?

Of course, not all coastal areas have a volunteer bird rescue group to call on and the best way to rescue a bird is to prevent injury and entanglement in the first place. So, how can you take action to prevent unnecessary death of seabirds by entanglement? Follow the steps below, but most importantly – Don’t cut the Line! Reel. Remove. Release.

  1. Don’t cut the Line!! Try to prevent the pelican from taking out additional line.
  2. Slowly and calmly reel in the bird.
  3. While reeling in the bird, find a buddy and put on sunglasses or other eye protection. Rescues are easier and safer with an extra set of hands. Always remember to wear eye protection when handling a pelican.
  4. When the bird is at the pier/shore, throw a cloth (towel, hat, t-shirt) over the bird’s head to calm it down. You may also be able to use a dip net or cast net to secure the bird if you have a large enough one available.
  5. Grab the pelican’s beak firmly and keep hold of it. Be prepared for the bird to struggle and be sure to keep hold of the beak. As long as you are in control of the beak, you are in control of the pelican. Take care not to cover the nostrils and either place a finger in between the pelican’s upper and lower beak (only do this with pelicans!) or reduce the firmness of your grasp to allow the bird to breathe.
  6. With the help of a buddy, check the pelican over and remove any fishing line and tackle. If the bird has hooks in it, use wire cutters to remove them. Push the hook forward, cut the barb off with the wire cutters, and back the hook out carefully.
  7. Check the pelican thoroughly for additional tackle. Many pelicans have more than one piece of line or tackle on them. Hooks, line snags, and tangles may be hidden under the wings, in the pouch, on the breast, or on the belly and legs.
  8. Once all tackle is removed, check the pelican for injuries. (The recommendations below are subjective, so if you are in doubt, take the bird to a licensed rehabilitation facility (list here)
    1. Spread both wings out fully to check if they can extend all of the way. Check for lacerations to tendons on wings or on legs – if the wings cannot extend fully or if there are severe lacerations with swelling and/or heat, the bird should go to rehab.
    2. Check for tears in pouch – if there is a tear, the bird should go to rehab.
    3. Feel the keel (breastbone) of the bird – if it feels sharp, the bird needs to go to rehab because its body weight is too low, likely from not being able to eat while entangled
  9. If the bird has no injuries and has strength/energy, you can release the bird on scene. Release the bird by pointing it toward the water and releasing with its head pointed away from you. Do not throw the bird. Usually, the rescue is a stressful experience for the bird and it may not immediately fly away until it has recovered from the stress. Do not be alarmed by this, it is normal. If the bird does not seem able to fly after several minutes, however, there may be internal injuries and you might need to consider re-capturing the bird and taking it to rehab. Pelicans must be able to fly to feed.
  10. If you determine that the bird needs to go to rehab, place in a dog crate (preferably) or large cardboard box with air holes and make arrangements for transport to rehab. 

Head over to our Bird-Friendly Fishing page to find out more about how you can protect seabirds and why they are important to Florida’s tourism economy.