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It’s mid-January in a conifer forest with a few clearings within. On the ground, at the edge of one of the clearings, sits an adult bald eagle. It’s not by choice the eagle is sitting on the ground; a few days back it started to experience awkwardness in flight. It would miss branches when trying to perch and miss when trying to grab fish out of open stretches of water. Its condition deteriorated rapidly to the point where it couldn’t fly at all. With the loss of flight, there was another problem; the eagle couldn’t find food. Unless someone found this eagle soon, it would be doomed to a death by starvation, or worse; it wasn’t a pesticide or other chemical, nor was it any type of bacterial or viral issue that put the eagle in its plight. This eagle ingested a lead fragment
This scenario has been occurring with increasing frequency, according to a PA Game Commission (PGC) release dated October 13. According to the PGC, in increasing number of bald eagles admitted to wildlife-rehabilitation centers across PA are showing symptoms of lead toxicity. PGC data from 2006 to 2016 reveal that approximately one-third of the state’s known bald-eagle mortalities are associated with a toxin, with lead being the most common. If our hypothetical eagle from above were somehow found and brought into a wildlife rehabilitation or veterinary facility for treatment, recovery is not guaranteed. The effects of lead toxicity eventually cause irreparable damage to organs and other body systems, which leads to death. Red Creek Wildlife Center director Peggy Hentz stated in the news release, “In the past year, wildlife-rehabilitation centers statewide have treated 12 bald eagles with lead toxicity, and only one of them survived.”
In its press release the PGC states that the main source of lead has not been identified, but hunters can help cut down on any potential incidents of eagles ingesting lead by burying or covering gut piles of big game harvests. Even a layer of leaves would help, as eagles forage by sight. Also mentioned was that hunters could eliminate lead from their harvests by using non-lead ammunition. A conventional bullet can leave 30 to 40% of its lead in the target after the bullet passes through, and fragments can travel up to 18 inches.
Since the start of the re-introduction and recovery efforts of the bald eagle in the 1970s, the population in New York and PA has grown dramatically, which is probably behind the increase of lead toxicity being reported by wildlife rehabilitators. One of the most discouraging things is to track down and rescue a downed bald eagle, expecting a feisty attack from bill, talon and flailing wings only to find that the eagle can barely move its legs and turn its head; the next morning, you get the news from the clinic that it didn’t last the night. We, who utilize the outdoors for various activities, may be able to minimize the effect lead is having on eagles and other animals in the wild by making a few simple changes while in the field. To read the PGC news release, visit www.media.pa.gov/Pages/Game-Commission-Details.aspx?newsid=159.