Three local boys try in vain to save eagle from lead poisoning
Friday, January 13, 2017 4:20 PM
What started out as a wildlife adventure for three Decorah teens recently, unfortunately had a sad ending.
Decorah sophomores Hayden Carlson, Max Bruening and Isaac Fish were out hiking north of Decorah when they were startled by an eagle popping out from behind a tree.
“At first it was kind of intimidating,” said Fish.
“We just stood there staring at it,” added Carlson.
Bruening said at first glance, they thought the eagle’s wing was injured, because it didn’t fly away. Then they noticed an abundance of green feces (technically called mutes) and realized something more was wrong.
A couple of the boys returned to the Bruening home, where Max’s dad called the DNR. Local officer Brian Rothman was off work that day, but when he received the message, he texted Kay Neumann of Save Our Avian Resources (SOAR), who contacted Brian Malaise, Decorah Fish Hatchery biologist, to see if he could assist in the rescue.
SOAR is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1999 dedicated to saving avian resources through raptor rehabilitation, education and research. SOAR maintains all necessary US Fish & Wildlife Service and Iowa DNR permits to provide rehabilitation and education.
Neumann returned the call and asked if the boys thought they could catch the eagle and somehow contain it until Malaise could pick it up.
The boys grabbed a pet carrier, blanket and saucer sled and returned to the creek bed, where they had seen the eagle.
When they approached it, it fled through a group of trees and flew into the creek.
“At that point, we decided we were going to have to get our feet wet, so we just walked into the creek,” said Carlson.
The boys carefully took the blanket and were able to corner the eagle against a bank, where they attemped to catch it.
“We covered it with the blanket, and it made this screeching sound, like a cat, and his claws reached up between us,” said Fish.
“It looked like it was going to kill Max for a second,” said Carlson.
The boys carefully held the eagle’s wings against its body in order to finally get it into the carrier. They then pulled it back to the Bruenings and waited for Malaise, who transferred it to his vehicle and drove it to New Hampton, where he met Linette Bernard, communications director for SOAR.
Proceed with caution
Malaise said the boys did the right thing in contacting the DNR and cautioned that handling a wild animal can be extremely dangerous.
“We don’t encourage anyone to handle wildlife unless you know what you’re doing,” said Malaise.
A sad ending
Bernard said the eagle, estimated to be between 4 and 5 years old, unfortunately died in transport.
“We will do a necropsy, but the anecdotal information leads us to suspect lead toxicity as the cause of death,” said Bernard.
“We won’t know for sure until its liver tissue goes to the diagnostic lab.”
When asked how they felt about the experience, knowing the eagle had not survived, the boys didn’t hesitate.
“It was still cool because we got to catch an eagle,” said Fish.
Education is key
Bernard said the No. 1 killer of female bald eagles is lead poisoning.
Each year during deer hunting season, SOAR sees a spike in calls about poisoned eagles.
Females are more susceptible to poisoning than males, possibly because the way the lead is absorbed in their system mimics the way calcium is absorbed.
Bernard said she recently posted a list of frequently asked questions to educate people about the dangers of lead ammunition.
The following information appears on soarraptors.org:
• How can eagles and other birds get lead in their system?
Primary lead exposure in animals is caused by the animal eating lead directly, mistaking it for food or grit. This happens with seed-eating birds like mourning doves. Secondary lead exposure in animals comes from the animal eating another animal that contains lead. This prey animal either swallowed lead (like a lead sinker) or has lead shot or pieces of a lead slug embedded in its body.
• How are eagles being exposed to lead?
Beginning in 2004, Iowa wildlife rehabilitators working with bald eagles began testing for lead levels in blood (alive) or from liver tissue samples (if dead) and taking X-rays to look for ingested lead. An abnormal lead level is above 0.2 parts per million (ppm) as a blood lead level or above 2.0 ppm as a liver lead level.
In the 11 years (2004-2014) of data, only 49 of the 322 eagles admitted did not have a lead level checked or 273 eagles had a blood lead or liver lead level test completed. One hundred thirty-six of the 273 eagles tested (or 50 percent) had an elevated lead level. One-hundred thirty-six of the 322 (total sample size) admitted had an elevated lead level.
• How does lead impact an eagle?
Signs of toxic lead levels in raptors and other birds that ingest lead include ataxia (muscle weakness and an inability to control voluntary muscle movement due to central nervous system being affected), lime-green feces, vomiting, seizures, partial or full paralysis of the wings and legs, impaired vision, organ failure and death.
Lead poisoning affects eagles more than other raptors. Thousands of bald eagles winter in Iowa — estimates of up to one-fifth of the lower 48 states’ eagle population — congregate near open water along the big rivers and reservoirs in the state. Other scavengers like turkey vultures have migrated south. Hawks tend to hunt more than scavenge and an eagle will chase off hawks feeding on a carcass.
“We do our best to see that each eagle admitted (and other birds that are symptomatic) has a lead test, an X-ray (to identify any metallic opacities in the digestive tract or fractures), and receives chelation medication as needed. Chelation is a process of twice-daily intramuscular injections with calcium EDTA – the medication binds to the lead in the blood that forms a compound the kidneys can excrete,” wrote Bernard.
“The blood lead analyzer also requires a re-agent kit (over $400 for 50 tests and many eagles will be tested more than once) and the manufacturer has discontinued this model and is only providing re-agent supplies for a few more months. That means we’ll have to purchase a new / newer blood lead analyzer to the tune of several thousand dollars. The last 100 ml vial of calcium EDTA for chelation cost $270… plus the cost of X-rays and diagnostic laboratory liver lead tests. We continue with these protocols to add to our database of eagles and lead information. You can help us continue with this research and treatment of eagles and all our patients by donating to SOAR,” wrote Bernard.
“This is a problem that we can solve,” Dr. Laura Johnson, a veterinarian and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator at Tender Care Animal Hospital in Prairie du Chien, Wis., said in an interview with the North Iowa Times in December 2011.
“We want people to know that they can change the kind of ammunition they use,” she added.
“We don’t know the full impact of lead toxicity on an eagle’s ability to avoid accidents, but think about the implications of people driving drunk and their impaired reaction times and poor decision-making skills, and then imagine how an eagle can fly with brain swelling and vision issues?”
Prevention is simple
Bernard said, “Lead is an absolutely horrible toxin that impacts all bodily functions. The prevention is simple: Ask your hunting and fishing friends to check out the non-toxic alternatives. Hunters and anglers have both had great success with these products. The more folks ask for non-toxic products… manufacturers will continue to improve product offerings.”
She said researchers from across the country have demonstrated that when raptors, particularly eagles and other avian scavengers, ingest lead ammunition or lead fishing tackle, their efficient digestive systems absorb the lead directly into the blood stream and that lead is circulated throughout the body. The body “sees” lead the same as it recognizes calcium. All bodies need calcium and the calcium is absorbed into bones and tissue. The very same thing happens when lead is in the body. The lead is absorbed just as if it was calcium and is stored in bones and tissue. A very small amount of lead ingested by an eagle will cause death — an amount no more than a grain of rice.
“Copper slugs and muzzleloader sabots (a device that ensures the correct positioning of a bullet or shell in the barrel of a gun, attached either to the projectile or inside the barrel and falling away as it leaves the muzzle) are the way to go,” said Bernard.
For more information, visit soarraptors.org.
Our app is now available!