Catching and Handling of Seabirds (Wildlife Casualty Management)
Click image for full page view Click image for full page view

Summary Information
Type of technique Health & Management / UK Wildlife Casualty Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Wildlife Casualty Handling and Transport which contains background information together with links to the Electronic Library and Organisations (UK Contacts). The related Species pages contain similar linkages.
Description This page has been prepared for the "UK Wildlife: First Aid and Care" Wildpro module, and is designed for the needs of the following species: Alle alle - Dovekie (Little auk), Alca torda - Razorbill, Cepphus grylle - Black guillemot, Fratercula arctica - Atlantic puffin, Fulmarus glacialis - Northern fulmar, Hydrobates pelagicus - European storm-petrel , Morus bassanus - Northern gannet, Oceanodroma leucorhoa - Leach's storm-petrel, Phalacrocorax carbo - Great cormorant, Phalacocorax aristotelis - European Shag, Puffinus griseus - Sooty shearwater, Puffinus puffinus - Manx shearwater, Uria aalge - Common murre (Common guillemot).

These species are from the families Laridae, Phalacrocoracidae, Procellariidae, Sulidae.

  • Piscivorous (fish-eating) species with long pointed bills commonly spear at the eyes. Gannets, shags and cormorants pose a particular risk and should only be handled by experienced personnel.
  • Some species such as cormorants and puffins can give a crushing and twisting bite with the bill.
  • Always take care to avoid injury from the bill by ensuring adequate restraint of the head.
  • Do not underestimate the strength of these birds or their ability to lunge forwards to strike with the bill even when the head is being held.
  • Protective goggles should be worn when handling these birds.
  • The sharp claws of these birds may cause significant injuries to handlers.
  • Several species (e.g. Morus bassanus - Northern gannet) do not have any external nostrils. The bill of these species must never be taped closed as this will prevent breathing. Even in the species with external nostrils, taping the bill closed risks regurgitation and inhalation.

Catching and Handling:

  • Attempting to catch these species on the water, where they can dive, is likely to be extremely difficult and frustrating.
  • If near water, approach from the water side of the bird to reduce the risk of the bird escaping into the water.
  • Avoid prolonged chasing which may exhaust and excessively stress the bird being caught.
  • Large, long-handled nets or lasso nets may be used.(B188)
  • A large sheet, towel or similar cloth may be thrown over the bird, particularly over the head.(B188)
  • In some circumstances such as in a small enclosed area, these birds may be caught by hand using two people: one person distracting the bird from the front, a second then grabbing just behind the head to control the head and bill. (B118.18.w18.)
  • Control the head first and make sure this is controlled at all times. (D24)
  • Immediately after the head is held, control the body. (D9)
  • If caught with a net or cloth, ensure the head and body are under control before the net/cloth is removed.
  • These birds may be easier to carry wrapped in a towel; the body may then easily be held under one arm while the other hand controls the head.
  • May be useful to have one person holding the body and wings while a second person controls the head. (B169.43.w43)
  • If handing from one person to another, ensure the head is transferred first and is under control, then transfer control of the body.

Restraint for examination and treatment:

  • Require at least one person to hold the bird, paying particular attention to restraint of the head and neck, and another to conduct the examination or give treatment.
  • The wings and legs should be released to the examiner one at a time to permit examination.
  • Subdued lighting should be used if possible to calm the bird and facilitate handling.
  • Covering the bird's head with a lightweight cloth may help to keep the bird calm during the examination.
  • If the bill is taped or held closed a careful watch is required in case the bird starts to regurgitate.
    • Species without external nostrils must not have the bill taped closed. If taping is considered necessary, a spacer such as a plastic syringe case must be placed inside the bill sideways to ensure that the bill remains partially open and allows air flow.
    • Any bird with the bill taped closed must not be left unattended.
    • If the bill has been taped closed during examination it is important to ensure that the mouth is checked thoroughly during the examination.
  • Prolonged examination and treatment may be best performed under general anaesthesia.

(B118.5.w5, B118.18.w18, B169.43.w43, B188, B199, D9, D24, V.w26)

General Anaesthesia (Generic "Bird" Information)

  • A variety of techniques have been used for induction and maintenance of general anaesthesia in birds including injectable anaesthetics such as ketamine, propofol, saffan, medetomidine, etc and gaseous anaesthetics such as halothane and isoflurane. Further information regarding the use of different anaesthetic agents is available as described for use in waterfowl.  See:
  • Isoflurane is currently considered to be the anaesthetic agent of choice for induction and maintenance of general anaesthesia in birds in most circumstances and species.
    • Induction of general anaesthesia with a gaseous agent can be achieved using a face mask or induction chamber.
    • Use of an anaesthetic chamber for induction may be preferable with small birds because it avoids the stress involved with manual restraint during mask induction.
    • The walls of the anaesthetic chamber should preferably be made of a transparent or translucent material that facilitates easy monitoring of the patient during induction and transfer to an anaesthetic mask or intubation at the appropriate depth of general anaesthesia.
    • In the majority of cases, intubation of birds is recommended during the maintenance of general anaesthesia. However, for very small birds and / or very short procedures intubation may not be appropriate. Clinical judgement should be used to determine whether intubation is appropriate for the size of species, procedure and likely duration of general anaesthesia required.
    • The majority of birds have simple solid cartilaginous rings within the trachea. As a consequence, the use of cuffed endotracheal tubes is not generally recommended because of the potential risk of the cuff exerting local pressure which could damage the trachea and lead to secondary tissue necrosis. The use of a non-cuffed endotracheal tubes is generally recommended. However in specific circumstances where the risks of gastrointestinal contents reflux (e.g. flushing of the gizzard to remove particulate lead material in waterfowl) may be particularly high, partial inflation of a cuffed tube may be practised with great care.
  • The need for fluid therapy by an appropriate route should be considered during general anaesthesia, particularly in birds which may be dehydrated. Clinical judgement, based on general principles, must be used regarding the route, volume and type of fluids required.
  • Consideration should be given to prevent hypothermia. The ambient temperature of the room should be comfortably warm (20oC - 25oC) and external heat sources may be appropriate (e.g. heat mats etc.), particularly for longer anaesthetics and collapsed animals. Care must be taken not to overheat the animal or cause burns.
  • There must be good ventilation in any room used for gaseous anaesthesia. In normal circumstances an anaesthetic gas scavenging system should be in place, particularly when masks and chambers are used. Exposure to anaesthetic gases can pose a risk to the operating staff, either through toxic effects of the gas or inadvertent self-anaesthesia of the veterinary and nursing staff.
  • Further information, with particular reference to waterfowl, and including emergency procedures, is available in: Treatment and Care - Anaesthesia and Chemical Restraint.

(B11, B13.39.w16, B14, B197, V.w5, V.w6 V.w26)

Appropriate Use (?)
  • Catching these species on water in which they can dive is likely to be extremely difficult and frustrating.
  • Catch only if necessary.
  • Handling of wild animals should be minimised.
  • Consider design of accommodation and timing of treatments to minimise requirements for capture and handling.
  • Excessive chasing should be avoided as this is very stressful to the bird.(B118.5.w5)
  • Consider whether physical or chemical restraint is more appropriate.
  • Handling in subdued light often quietens diurnal birds.(B118.5.w5, B123)
  • Protective goggles are recommended when handling these birds.
  • Do not underestimate the strength of these birds or their ability to lunge forwards to strike with the bill even when the head is being held.
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Several species have internal nostrils only (no external nares, e.g. Morus bassanus - Northern gannet): do not tape the bill of these species closed as this will prevent breathing.
  • Some species such as cormorants and puffins can give a crushing and twisting bite with the bill.(D6)
  • Piscivorous (fish-eating) species with long pointed bills commonly spear at the eyes. Gannets, shags and cormorants pose a particular risk and should only be handled by experienced personnel.
  • Sharp claws may cause significant scratches to handlers.
  • There is a risk of regurgitation and inhalation in a bird with its bill held closed.
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Protective goggles.
  • Appropriate nets and gloves.
  • Suitable cloths such as towels.
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Experience is advantageous when handling these birds and is important for the safe handling of larger species.
  • Advice and assistance should be sought by inexperienced handlers.
Cost/ Availability
  • Appropriate nets and gloves may be available from specialist suppliers, veterinary suppliers or some good pet stores; they may be expensive.
  • Nets may also be constructed from readily-available materials.
  • Protective goggles are widely available and not expensive.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • Risks to human health, both physical and risks of zoonotic illness, must be considered. (Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974)
  • Subject to certain exceptions (e.g. birds listed in Schedule 2, outside their close season), it is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 Section 1 to "take" (i.e. capture) any bird from the wild in the UK and special penalties apply for birds listed under Schedule 1 (including Oceanodroma leucorhoa - Leach's storm-petrel); however an exception is made in the case of taking a disabled individual for care, rehabilitation and release. (W5.Jan01, D28, D31)
  • Sea shores are potentially hazardous environments. The risks to human health and safety must be remembered: these include sharp rocks, water and the external environment, which may lead to physical injury, drowning, hypothermia or (less commonly in the UK) hyperthermia/sunstroke. All personnel who may work in such conditions must be given adequate training to ensure that they are aware of the risks and know how to minimise these risks.
  • Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 applies to protect any employees of a wildlife hospital, as well as volunteers at the hospital and visitors. Appropriate safety procedures must be provided to take into account any special risks involved with persons working with non-domesticated species (J35.147.w1, B142.4.w4, B156.21.w21)
  • See: Legislation relating to Wildlife Casualties.
Author Debra Bourne
Referee Becki Lawson and Suzanne Boardman

Return to Top of Page