Lead said to be poisoning eagles

By Alexandra Bogdanovic
Fauquier Times-Democrat

This story doesn’t have a happy ending.

On Dec. 29, a Virginia conservation officer from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries rescued a bald eagle and brought it to the Wildlife Center in Waynesboro.

The veterinary staff there quickly determined that the bird, which had been found down in a field, unable to fly, was suffering from lead poisoning.

Chelation treatment, which is used to detoxify the bird, did not work however.

“The eagle from Fauquier died Jan. 1,” said Randy Huwa, executive vice president of the Wildlife Center.

Minute amounts of lead can easily sicken and kill the raptors. Blood tests on the Fauquier eagle revealed its lead level was 4. 9 parts per million.

“The [equipment we use] to do the blood tests is calibrated to measure up to five parts of lead per million, so this eagle’s lead levels were almost off the chart,” said Ed Clark, president and co-founder of the Wildlife Center.

“The veterinary staff did everything they could, but there was little to no hope from the beginning.”

The bird had apparently been poisoned for some time and was so weak, it couldn’t even be anesthetized, Clark said.

The case is not unique however. Last year, the Wildlife Center admitted 36 bald eagles. Of those, six showed signs of lead poisoning and 15 had measurable lead levels.

Routine tests show that many eagles are exposed to the highly toxic metal by ingesting lead shotgun pellets or bullet fragments, Huwa explained.

“The eagles ingest the fragments while scavenging animals that have been shot but not recovered by hunters, or by feeding on the entrails of game animals, like deer, which have been harvested and ‘field dressed.'”

Field dressing is the practice of removing the internal organs from animals taken for human consumption to preserve the quality of the meat. More often than not, the material is simply left on the ground, he said.

When the eagles come across the remains, they sometimes swallow the bullets or lead fragments. Tiny particles can get stuck in the digestive tract where fluids “leach” the heavy metal into the blood stream and body tissues.

Ultimately, the nervous system and internal organs are affected, causing the bird to seem lethargic and week.

Eagles with lead poisoning may also be unable to stand or fly even though there may be no obvious external signs of injury.

Huwa and Clark agree that many hunters are simply unaware that these habits are potentially lethal to eagles.

Clark stressed that hunters need to be educated, not vilified, however. He urged them to “be careful with lead,” and to make a concerted effort to recover their prey. Moreover, he encouraged hunters who field dress their game to bury or cover the waste.

“The sickness or death of even a single bald eagle is just too high a price for human negligence or laziness,” he said.

In addition to taking the proper precautions, hunters should also consider using alternative ammunition. Solid copper bullets are “ballistically identical to lead and every bit as effective,” said Clark, a lifelong hunter.

“Losing a bald eagle is a really sad event, especially when the cause of the bird’s death is so preventable,” Clark said. “We can only hope that these tragic cases will remind everyone that bullets and shotgun pellets can kill twice.”

Anyone who finds an injured eagle or other wild animal should call a conservation police officer or the Wildlife Center, a nonprofit teaching and research hospital, immediately.

For more information, visit wildlifecenter.org.

Addendum: Lead from where?

The Fauquier Times-Democrat, which first published this report, also received the following letter to the editor about:

I very rarely comment on article in the Times-Democrat other than in the editorial section. I love this paper. But I found your article very irresponsible.

First of all, I am not a biologist. However, I grew up along the Mississippi River in Illinois when the eagle population was decimated almost to extinction due to DDT.

After returning from Vietnam, I went to college back in the area and saw the eagle population rebound in a very active hunting area.

Did you ask Randy Huwa and Ed Clark if the veterinary staff did a detailed animal autopsy on each of the deceased birds?

Eagles are not scavengers. They are birds of prey; they like their food alive before they eat it.

I might consider a few eagles ingesting lead fragments from live field mice, but more likely they are getting this from fish out of the local rivers, which have known lead issues. Lead poisoning is cumulative, and builds up in humans and animals alike.

If this is from hunters, then there should be many more dead turkey vultures in Fauquier County than eagles.

I find this statement that the hunter is responsible for this issue is not valid, or at least you do not present adequate evidence to support it. I think you need to do more research and write and additional article on this topic.

Although I am not a hunter, I think you are pointing the finger at them needlessly. Be a journalist and do proper due diligence.

Chuck Gould

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