Brett Glasby is the Programme Manager of the Marine Wildlife Management Programme in the V&A Waterfront, in collaboration Two Oceans Aquarium, SANCCOB, SPCA, BirdLife South Africa and the Department of Environmental Affairs. Brett oversees activities in the greater harbour area, regularly freeing entangled birds, assisting in the monitoring of the health of the wild animals in the area, and assisting our Seal Monitor Programme.

Recently, Brett rescued a Hartlaub's gull entangled in wire and a single-use plastic shopping bag. Although this was just one of the countless entangled animals we encounter, we thought this would be an appropriate story to share as it's Plastic Free July. We interviewed Brett about this rescue and the plight of the birds of Cape Town.

Brett found this seagull on the roof of a building in the V&A Waterfront. Photo by Brett Glasby.

Brett, how many entangled birds do you deal with in a week?

Brett: It varies. Just in the last two weeks, I've had three entangled birds, where I've managed to intervene while they were still alive, and there were two that I found dead. It's difficult to say because a lot of them we don't find - their bodies land up in the water or they get eaten by seals and fish.

 
Its feet were tangled in a plastic shopping bag and its wing was tangled in wire. Photo by Brett Glasby.

What are the major litter items that you see entangling birds?

Brett: Fishing line is a big one, - it's fairly common as we are in a harbour. Bits of plastic, whether those are whole plastic bags, pieces of plastic bags or cords. Wire is another - occasionally bird deterrents can become damaged which then poses a risk of entanglement. It is important that any bird deterrent measure that is put into place is maintained and regularly repaired to avoid any danger to birds and other animals.

After freeing its feet, Brett brought the bird back to the Aquarium to disentangle its wing and check it for injuries. Three pieces of wire in total were wrapped around its wing, but luckily its injuries seemed superficial.

How does a bird actually get entangled?

Brett: It depends on the material. For example, with fishing line or plastic bags they might be walking and get it caught around one foot and as they continue walking it gets tangled around the other foot. Then, they might try pecking at it and get it over a wing and then get their wing tangled.

With the wire what tends to happen is that because it is stiff it forms a loop and as soon as the bird puts pressure on it, it bends around them and then that just continues to wrap and tighten as they try to get it off. They tend to tangle themselves up even more as they try to free themselves.

Brett told us that as a bird struggles to free itself, it can sometimes pull nooses even tighter. Animals have no way to free themselves from synthetic fibres, plastics, fishing line or wire.

Is there any way for a bird to get free once it is tangled?

Brett: Not really, no. What might happen if the noose is around a leg it cuts off blood circulation and eventually the foot will fall off. That's why you so often see pigeons and seagulls with only one leg - at some point they were tangled up. If the tangle is around a wing, then the bird will die - it will starve to death.

With a piece of wire this tight around its wing, this bird would have been trapped on the rooftop and eventually starved to death over a week.
A love bite as a thank-you for being disentangled. Brett keeps and catalogues all the litter that entangles the birds he's able to free - sending it to the Department of Environmental Affairs for research purposes.

What do you do with the stuff that you take off the birds?

Brett: I keep the item that we took off the animal - I label it with a little tag that says what species of animal it was, where it was located and the date and time that it was found, and store it away. We then provide that information to the Department of Environmental Affairs for their records. This info is used for research projects and may be used down the line to try to put measures in place to reduce entanglements.

A similar project is done with seals. The Two Oceans Aquarium has been involved with disentangling seals in the V&A Waterfront for easily the last 15 years - every single entangling item has been kept by us and records of these items have been provided to the Department of Environmental Affairs. Now, when a researcher wants to do a study about what the most common plastics or items are that seals get entangled in they can make a request to the Department for this information.

Brett is happy with the seagull's health - it's now time to take it somewhere secluded to see if it has the energy to fly.
Free from entanglement at last!

If you hadn't found this seagull, what would have happened to it?

Brett: It's difficult to say. It would have definitely died of thirst and hunger as it would have had no access to food or water on the rooftop where it was and not been able to fly or move somewhere else. It might have survived five or six days entangled like that before it died of thirst.

Looking at the bird in full daylight, Brett points out the scar tissue on the bird's legs - caused by the plastic bag. He hopes it will be able to walk normally.

Aside from seagulls, what other birds do you see entangled around the harbour?

Brett: We often see starlings tangled in small bits of fishing line, I've seen cormorants with fishing line on them. There are a lot of one-footed pigeons here, but I haven't actually picked up any that were still entangled. 

To freedom!

How does it feel for you when you get to rescue an entangled animal and it flies off?

Brett: That's always first prize. It makes my week, my day, my year when I get to successfully rescue and release an animal. It makes everything worthwhile - definitely a great day.

Ok, maybe the bird needs a little bit of a rest first... We notice it is walking with a limp...
Despite the limp, it's time for take-off attempt two!

If someone finds an entangled bird, who should they call?

Brett: If it is within the V&A Waterfront, by all means, contact the Two Oceans Aquarium. We now have a unit that goes out into the Waterfront and deals with wildlife. Give us a call and we'll be able to assist.

If it's outside the Waterfront area, the best people to contact are SANCCOB and the SPCA Wildlife Unit at the Cape of Good Hope SPCA, they have dedicated people that deal with this kind of thing as well.

Contact details for the Cape Town area:

  • Entangled birds in the V&A Waterfront: Call us, the Two Oceans Aquarium, on +27 (0)21 418 3823
  • Seabirds: Contact SANCCOB on +27 (0)21 557 6155 or +27 (0)78 638 3731 (after hours)
  • Terrestrial birds: Call Cape of Good Hope SPCA on +27 (0)21 700 4140.

Please note:

  • If you are at all unsure about how to proceed when encountering any trapped, entangled, injured or sick birds, please contact the people above - we are all available to offer advice and assistance.
  • Do not attempt to disentangle a bird if there is any sign of injury, eg. a fish hook. It can be painful and harmful to the bird if not removed under anaesthetic by a veterinarian. It is crucial to contact the organisations above to ensure that this happens.
  • If possible, please try to take photos of the entangled bird. This will help us prepare for any veterinary needs the bird may have and ensure it receives the correct care.
 
And she's off! The seagull soars back to its flock. Now it's up to us all to keep the environment free of litter for the sake of birds that won't be lucky enough to meet a rescuer.
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