Every year, bald eagles are found sick, dead, or dying. Approximately 120 sick eagles are brought into the University of Minnesota Raptor Center alone each year. Some of them are seizing, and some of them are blind. They are all sick and in desperate need of help.
3. The Risk Of Lead Toxicity
The cause of these eagles' illnesses? Lead toxicity. The eagles often can't stand, and frequently have difficulty breathing. Sometimes they can't even open their beaks.
Eagles contact lead poisoning when they eat animals that have been shot with lead ammunition. "Raptors are quite willing to be scavengers, so they scavenge," said Lynn Tompkins, executive director ofBlue Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center. "They eat things that have been shot. Lead ammunition is the biggest source."
There's a strong correlation between lead poisoning in eagles and hunting season. According to Dr. Pat Redig, veterinarian and co-founder of The University of Minnesota's Raptor Center, more sick and injured bald eagles turn up between November and January than at any other time of the year. This coincides with Minnesota's firearms deer season. Deer hunters field dress the deer, leaving the entrails behind, which the eagles then ingest.
Bald eagles become sick with different levels of lead toxicity. Eagles that have ingested even small amounts of lead can still become seriously ill. One such eagle with a low lead level was still paralyzed and couldn't unclench her feet.
On February 27, the Blue Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center received a call about a bald eagle with lead toxicity in Washington. Upon testing the eagle's blood, rescuers discovered that the eagle's blood lead level was 30 times the level considered to be deadly in raptors. It's the highest lead level the rehabilitation center had ever documented. The eagle later died.
It's important to realize that there is no safe level of lead. Lead, even in small amounts, can affect the nervous system. It causes anemia and high blood pressure. In short, lead is toxic — so toxic that it's been removed from paint, gas, and plumbing for our safety.
But lead is still used in ammunition. The simple act of converting to non-lead ammunition would solve this secondary poisoning problem. Lead ammunition performs just as well lead ammunition. It's also safer for families to eat game shot with non-lead ammunition.
Unfortunately for the eagles, a ban on the use of lead ammunition in wildlife refugees was just overturned. The ban would have helped to protect the eagles from these terrible deaths. U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, overturned the ban, stating that the interests of hunters weren't sufficiently represented.
Bald eagles aren't the only species being affected by lead poisoning. Last year Blue Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education tested 160 birds for lead. The study found that 80% of eagles, 30% of hawks, and 25% of great horned owls tested positive for lead in their blood.
When possible, eagles are treated, rehabilitated, and released. But they can't all be saved. It's difficult to track just how many eagles die of lead toxicity, especially when they may not all make it into a center for treatment.
Clearly, lead toxicity is a major threat to bald eagles, as well as to other birds. The plight of the bald eagle is an excellent argument for the importance of non-lead ammunition. If we want to preserve this symbol of America, then we need to take action to protect these birds.