Stricter guidelines are now in place for people wanting to fish at Brookhaven’s parks following the death of a great blue heron found at Murphey Candler Park. The new ordinance also prohibits fishing along the future Peachtree Creek Greenway.

The new rules were approved by the City Council April 9, just days following the death of a great blue heron found at Murphey Candler Park whose beak had become tied shut with cast-off fishing line. The beak was also clamped shut with two hooks from a lure that resembled a small fish. The bird was unable to eat and drink for about a week while at Murphey Candler Park and later died after being taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility.

The fatally entangled great blue heron in Brookhaven’s Murphey Candler Park shortly before its death. (Stephen Ramsden)

The specific amendment made to the city’s ordinance requires a fisherperson shall use monofilament line, of not more than 10 pounds of breaking strength, and a single unbarbed hook, using only natural baits. No lures, jigs, or other artificial devices may be utilized, according to the ordinance.
Fishing is prohibited under all circumstances along the Peachtree Creek Greenway, the ordinance states.

The ordinance gives the Brookhaven Police Department, the DeKalb County Police Department and the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department the authority to enforce the code, including citing an offender to go before the city’s Municipal Court and face a possible fine.

Lissie Stahlman of Brookhaven, an avid bird-watcher who helped track the great blue heron in April as volunteers worked for about a week to capture it, told the City Council during public comment on April 9 that three great blue herons have died or injured at Murphey Candler Park over the past 17 months due to “human neglect.”

“I don’t think people who enjoy parks have malicious intent. But they really need to be educated as to how their actions affect our natural habitat and the extraordinary wildlife that depend on it for survival,” she said.

One great blue heron had its lower beak caught in a nylon dog collar, preventing it from swallowing food, she said, and eventually died. Another great blue heron had its leg amputated after being caught in fishing line and adapted before recently disappearing. And then the one found in April, whose beak was tied shut, died 24 hours after being weak enough to rescue and taken to the Atlanta Wildlife Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) facility in Lithonia.

Scott Lange, AWARE’s director, said the heron was very emaciated from lack of food and drink, as well as stress. Volunteers tried to revive it with fluids, but the bird’s chances were not great due to going so long without food and drink.

“It’s always difficult to lose one, but it comes with the territory,” Lange said. “We try to take solace knowing he died in a quiet, safe spot and not being chased by a predator. But it is definitely disappointing.”

The heron was first spotted March 28 by Stephen Ramsden, an amateur photographer for the Atlanta Audubon Society and an avid bird-watcher.

He was taking pictures of birds at Murphey Candler Park when he noticed the heron sitting in a tree with what appeared to be a fish in its long, pointed beak. He zoomed his camera in for what he thought would be a great photo.

The “fish” was actually a fishing lure and its two hooks were embedded into the bottom of the beak. More than a dozen feet of fishing line were wrapped around the beak as well, Ramsden said.

“If it was natural, it would be one thing,” Ramsden said. “But knowing our intrusion into their habitat caused this problem is disheartening.

“We have more birds killed in the springtime,” he said. “The number one cause is dogs running loose. The number two cause is garbage.”

When those who fish at Murphey Candler Park’s lake cut their fishing line or leave their fishing line lying on the bank and don’t pick up their lures, they eventually make their way into the lake, Ramsden said. The sharp lures that look like small fish become prime targets for hungry birds and can result in what has happened to this heron, Ramsden said.

“Pretty much every year, a great blue heron gets tangled up and dies,” he said. “It’s a common bird, but people don’t think twice until they notice its absence.”

Lange said finding birds with their beaks entangled in fishing line or other trash is common with water fowl. More than 20 such birds were treated at AWARE last year. The rehabilitation facility treated some 1,300 wildlife in all in 2018.

Sometimes when people are fishing they break their fishing line or the lines and lures get caught in a tree, Lange said. This is usually not intentional, but there are some steps to take to reduce damage to wildlife:

  • If a person loses a line Lange said they can try to gather as much line as possible and cut the line into 6-inch segments. The smaller segments make it harder to entangle a beak, he said.
  • When walking around a pond or lake and discarded fishing line is visible, pick it up. Remove the line and hook from the environment to protect animals.
  • Visit AWARE’s website before deciding to pick up a baby animal that appears to be hurt. Spring is peak time for baby animals to be found on the ground, but that doesn’t mean they are orphaned, Lange said, and parents may be close by watching.

In 2015, the popular “Mother Goose” waterfowl at Murphey Candler Park was killed by a motorist, leading to the posting of dozens of signs urging people to slow down on West Nancy Creek Drive. The hand-made signs were eventually removed, but the city has installed some signs urging motorists to slow down. The city has also installed fishing line recycling containers and signs warning people not to feed wild animals at the park.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.