One majestic water bird captured the hearts of bird lovers across Colorado, the nation, and Canada. A few weeks ago, as a wildlife photographer zoomed in to snap a picture of a bird floating on Cherry Creek Reservoir, he noticed something troubling. It was a Common Loon tangled in fishing line. The line was visibly wrapped around his beak, but it wasn’t until six days later that anyone would know the full extent of his injuries.
Rescuing diving birds, like this loon, is a difficult task. This species is particularly good at evading humans and readily avoids capture by diving under water. Luckily for this bird, help was on the way. The photographer posted his photos and a plea for help on a Facebook page dedicated to Colorado Field Ornithologists. The post received a tremendous response, with dozens of concerned citizens wanting to help free him from the fishing litter. Several groups went to the reservoir to try and capture him so that he could be passed on to licensed rehabilitators dedicated to water birds. The park rangers at Cherry Creek State Park also tried their luck, but the loon managed to steer clear of their nets. Later, a woman and her nephew took their kayak out to help him. They were able to corral him to shore, where someone tossed their hoodie over him and scooped him up.
A licensed rehabilitator in the Parker area offered her assistance, and she was able to remove a hook and fishing line. The hook was embedded in the bird’s wing and the line was wrapped around his feet, neck, and tongue several times. The Parker rehabilitator called Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Lyons, and we met her half-way to retrieve the bird. Wildlife lovers from across the nation followed the Facebook story of the loon in hopeful anticipation.
Once the bird was in Greenwood’s care, our staff rushed to evaluate his condition and collect samples for analysis. Our medical team’s initial findings showed that the water bird was severely emaciated, exhausted, and fighting to live. We treated him for pain and parasites and then began to feed him. The growing list of ailments and the loon’s poor condition worried our staff. Even though the fishing line that had caused his injuries had been carefully removed, his feet started to swell as blood flow returned to his legs, a common problem after prolonged blood vessel constriction. He was also unable to dive effectively. Supporters, wildlife enthusiasts, and veterinary staff from across the country, united over this loon’s story, waited to hear more on his condition.
The next day, our rehabilitators came in ready for another day of treatment but found that he had not survived the night. We were all incredibly saddened, but thankful that we were able to relieve some of the loon’s suffering. Our team took post-mortem X-rays and drove the body to Colorado State University for a necropsy. The results were disheartening. The X-ray images showed that the bird suffered from a tear in his wing from the fishing line which would have rendered him unable to ever fly again. Compounding the permanent wing injury, CSU found that he had a patch of deadly fungus in his lungs and had been slowly starving for a long while.
Our main goal in wildlife rehabilitation is returning animals as quickly as possible back into the wild and to minimize suffering to wildlife. While this bird was too badly injured for us to save, we were able to alleviate his pain and shelter him from the elements during his final hours. When working with wildlife, we don’t always have happy endings, but we are grateful that we have the chance to help these animals in any way we can. That is what Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is here to do.