Bald Eagle, Lead Poisoning, and the legacy of Industrial Civilization.

On a late Friday afternoon at the end of March, our wildlife clinic in Bayside, Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, got a call about a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Some folks who live in a remote part of Humboldt, near the Lost Coast, had seen him (since he was on on the small side for an adult eagle we presumed male) sitting all day on a river bar. Their dog had even approached and the typically fierce bird was only able to fly to a low nearby perch. They called in their dog, and then they called us.

The next morning staff made the trip to the site on the Bear River. The eagle was still there.

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After a relatively easy capture and the long drive back, upon examination we realized that we had a very sick bird in our care. Lethargic, now unable to stand, and very weak, we initially suspected an all-too-common killer of raptors across the state: rodenticide.

baea-care-2-of-13Transporting back to our clinic, even in poor health the eagle is a wary observer.

It’s not a bad guess. According to a study conducted by colleagues in Marin County at WildCare, well over 70% of the wildlife from across the San Francisco Bay Area tests positive for exposure to anti-coagulant rodenticides. Although some sales of over-the-counter rodenticide were banned recently, these poisons still make it into the wild and their legacy will be with us for a long time.

Although this eagle has likely been exposed to rodenticide, that wasn’t his problem. After a few days in care, we observed that his feces was a dark, fluorescent green. This nearly always indicates another toxin that is also a major threat to wild animals: lead poisoning. In 2006, over 50% of the sick eagles brought in to care in Iowa suffered from lead poisoning.¹

baea-care-8-of-13A sick patient needs nutrition. We make sure they get it.

A trip to the veterinarian for radiographs and blood tests confirmed our suspicions. A pellet lodge in his throat and high levels of lead in his blood. We immediately started the eagle on medication that binds with the toxic metal and removes it from the blood stream. We believe that the pellet was ingested rather than the result of being shot, since it was passed after a short time.

A hunter using lead ammunition shoots an animal, who evades capture, carrying the lead ammo in her body, and dies elsewhere, only to be found by a scavenger, such as an eagle. When a scavenger eats the dead body the toxin kills another, unless someone intervenes.

Lead-based ammunition has been banned in the US for hunting waterfowl (ducks, geese, etc) since 1991.² California recently began to phase out all lead ammunition because of its role in secondary wildlife deaths, but a complete ban does not go into effect until 2019.

baea-care-6-of-13These feet are formidable! We take precautions with all patients, no matter how sick.

baea-care-5-of-13Our patient is at his worst. Fortunately he began to recover within a few days after getting the right medication.

Our patient was very ill. For the first few days of treatment we were unsure if he would survive one day to the next. On top of his lead poisoning, the eagle suffered an upper respiratory infection.  We gave him antibiotics along with his other medicine. We provided warmth. We provided safety. The eagle provided the will to live and the strength to endure. After five days in care he began to eat.

Often, although not always, the mark of a corner turned is the return of an appetite. His prognosis went from ‘guarded’ to ‘cautiously optimistic’.

After a few weeks, each course of medicine completed, we entered the long phase of recovery. Emaciated on admission, his weight had been rising slowly and steadily. Still very thin, and still relatively weak, we were able to move the eagle to outdoor housing, where he could perch, eat and begin to recover his strength in much greater privacy. Stress is a serious health risk to all patients, but especially for wild ones, who not only must contend with captivity but also the daily presence of caregivers who they regard as threats to their very lives.

baea-care-10-of-13A mighty eagle reduced to hiding in the aviary’s bushes might seem sad, but to staff, this is a photo of sure recovery.

Slow progress is still progress. It’s an important part of rehabilitation. We watch closely, from afar. Any sign of imporvement is noted. Stasis, or worse, decline, is also noted. If the patient is improving, we proceed. If not, we  consider changines to the treatment plan. If we have a songbird who’d been hit by a car that can’t stand or move her legs? well, if each day she exhibits signs of sensation returning, we are given hope that recovery is possible. It seems obvious, but it’s not. We train to make observations. We learn a language of care that allows us to note small, incremental improvements precisely. Exactitude in our work saves lives.

baea-care-13-of-13Our patient had been in care for over two months before he was able to mount this perch!

Slowly, our eagle patient became more alert. Small things let us know that a full recovery was likely, like following our movement when we brought food into his aviary, or the vigor with which he stepped up to his perch. In time we added higher perching, so that he’d have to jump. And then higher still, so that he’d have to fly. And we fed him everyday. For six months his slow gains mounted until at last, he was recovered. His respiratory infection had cleared.  He was flying with strength across his his housing. His blood work was excellent. Six months nearly to the day from his rescue, we took him back to a ridge above the river where he’d been found, near death.

This eagle got lucky. It’s no accident that he was injured. Industrial society has set traps as insidious as lead ammunition for a couple hundred years, at least. People need nature to live, yet our industries find Mother Earth and all her children to be either a source of capital, or an obstacle. Think of how coal mining jargon refers to the tops of mountains, the forests, the wild neighbors who call them home, as “overburden.” And even should we stop the machineries of death, the legacy of industry will linger in our environment, our home, for centuries to come – killing, injuring, displacing.

No, his poisoning was no accident – the accident, the twist of fate, is that he was found by caring, compassionate people who took steps to see that he got the treatment he deserved. And hopefully, we and our children and our grandchildren will always be there, ready to help those who we and our ancestors have harmed with our short-sighted schemes that have left perennial threats.

Every patient we admit is treated with dignity, no matter the species, no matter the injury. Every patient whose care we commit to is given the best we can give – whether  a Bald Eagle or a Pacific Wren – a Mallard or a Gray Fox. And the care we are able to provide is directly the result of the support that you provide. Thank you for making it possible for us to help this Bald Eagle, and all of our patients, recover from the injuries our industrial society cause, and get the second chance that they deserve.

baea-rel-1-of-15His ability to burst into flight like this took months to recover: this was a happy day!

The following photos are the sequence of his release! 
baea-rel-8-of-15Staff rehabilitator, Lucinda Adamson opens the carrier.

baea-rel-14-of-15Released back to his home! A powerful bird, restored. At the bottom of this valley is the river where he was found.

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All photos Bird Ally X/ Laura Corsiglia