69. Fish responsibly.

Herring Gull snagged with tackle

My father-in-law was an avid trout fisherman, and I liked to tag along when he went fishing in Port Wing, Wisconsin. I could see and hear myriad songbirds, ducks, shorebirds, hummingbirds, hawks, and other wonderful birds while he focused on fishing, often just downstream of a Great Blue Heron who shared his piscivorous passion. Many of my birding friends are also anglers. It’s easy to observe birds while enjoying this quiet, low-impact sport that is best pursued in exactly the kinds of habitat where birds abound.

Common Loon with fish

There are two ways that fishing can harm birds. The first involves tackle. Lead tackle, much of which is designed to look like aquatic bugs or small fish, may lure birds. Hooks can kill birds outright, whether they are swallowed or catch on eyes or mouth parts; lures can slice into the throat or esophagus or poison even the largest herons once they reach the stomach and release lead into the bloodstream; lead sinkers can poison bottom-feeding birds that are dabbling for food and grit. Many state departments of natural resources will trade toxic lead sinkers for nontoxic ones. This will avoid many problems, but even nontoxic hooks and lures can pierce birds internally or externally. Remember that when you release a fish by cutting the line, the hook or lure left in the fish is like a time bomb. If an eagle or heron catches the fish, it may be injured by the hook, and no matter how the fish eventually dies, the hook or lure will be out there for some unsuspecting bird or other creature to ingest. Be mindful of how dangerous tackle can be, and always do your best to bring home exactly what you brought out.

Great Blue Heron with fish

The second danger that fishing poses for birds involves monofilament line. When I was rehabbing birds, I treated several birds that were barely clinging to life after becoming entangled in fishing lines. In the case of one loon with line wrapped around its head, neck, and beak, by the time it could be captured, its mouth was a mass of necrotic tissue. The poor bird had suffered for weeks and ended up dying horribly. I’ve also seen swallows and other songbirds hanging dead from monofilament line caught on utility lines and tree branches near popular fishing spots.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission writes:

Most monofilament is non-biodegradable—it lasts about 600 years. Because it is thin and often clear, it is very difficult for birds and animals to see and they can easily brush up against it and become entangled in it. Once entangled, they may become injured, may drown, may become strangled, or may starve to death. Many animals also ingest fishing line. One recovered sea turtle was found to have consumed 590 feet of heavy-duty fishing line.

Tangled Northern Flicker

Monofilament is considered the primary cause of all bird entanglements. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists have identified monofilament fishing line as the number-one killer of adult Brown Pelicans. The Tampa Bay Watch estimates that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of birds die in Florida every year as a result of monofilament.


To prevent your fishing line from hurting birds, make sure that you’re aware of branches and wires when casting and take precautions to avoid getting your line caught. If it does get tangled, do your level best to remove it rather than just cutting it off. When disposing of old monofilament line, bring it to a monofilament recycling center. Some states provide recycling boxes near fishing spots; building these makes a good Eagle Scout project. If you can’t recycle it (monofilament can’t be recycled with normal plastics), cut it into very short lengths (less than six inches) before throwing it out.

Monofilament disposal receptacle

As more lakes, rivers, and streams become degraded from development, acid rain, mercury, nutrient runoff, pesticide contamination, invasive exotic species, and other problems, fish populations are becoming depleted. This is distressing to commercial and sports fishermen, but by working with conservationists to improve the health of fresh- and saltwater resources, anglers can help ensure the future of their sport and benefit the water systems that we all depend on for recreation, a healthy environment, and our very survival.

From 101 Ways to Help Birds, published by Stackpole in 2006. Please consider buying the book to show that there is a market for bird conservation books. (Photos, links, and updated information at the end of some entries are not from the book.)