Eagles Getting Sick on Food They Eat

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Eagles Getting Sick on Food They Eat

By Magdalene Landegent on MSNBC.com

She expects to see more lead-poisoned eagles in February with numbers peaking in March.

Bald eagles are getting lead poisoning by eating deer carcasses that have fragments of lead slugs in them. These carcasses are often those of deer wounded by hunters but not retrieved. 

Bald eagles are being attacked by an emerging predator. It's in the food they eat.

Eagle protection agencies have been seeing eagles that are oddly sick, explained Plymouth County Naturalist Victoria De Vos.

"They started testing the blood and they are finding out that they had very high levels of lead — a neurotoxin," De Vos said. "It was basically paralyzing them in different ways."

Bald eagles are getting lead poisoning by eating deer carcasses that have fragments of lead slugs in them. These carcasses are often those of deer wounded by hunters but not retrieved.

"Eagles aren't very delicate eaters," said De Vos. "They don't pick through their food and see what they're eating."

Lead poisoning is becoming more widespread, or at least more widely recognized, in Iowa's eagles.

"Hunters have been harvesting more deer in Iowa, and most deer in Iowa are shot with a lead slug," said Kay Neumann, executive director at Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR), an organization dedicated to eagle and other raptor rehabilitation along with research and education. SOAR is based in Dedham, Iowa.

Neumann and others are urging hunters to replace lead ammunition with copper, which doesn't poison wildlife.

When a lead slug enters a deer, parts of it shatter and spread out in the animal.

Even the tiniest pieces are dangerous for eagles, because they are very susceptible to lead, Neumann said.

"Two hundred milligrams is lethal to them. That's a baby aspirin size piece," she said. "They have such efficient digestive systems, it goes straight to their blood."

Already this season, Neumann has treated four bald eagles with lead poisoning.

"When they come in, they can't stand up, their stomach lining is ulcerated and they're puking green, some come in blind and they're usually gasping for air — the lead interferes with the oxygen in their blood, so they're starting to suffocate," Neumann said. "It's horrible."

Lead mimics calcium, so eagles' bodies (and human bodies) readily absorb it and send it into the bones, blood and neurological system.

"The eagles' brains swell, some have seizures," Neumann said.

Last year in Iowa, 27 of 40 bald eagles treated at Iowa centers showed lead poisoning in their blood. Only a few had actually been shot.

"When it's more than 60 percent, it's not random," Neumann said of eagles eating carcasses with lead.

Pointing out that not all sick eagles are brought in for care, she estimated up to 176 eagles in Iowa could have been affected by lead poisoning in 2009 alone.

"That's half of our breeding population," she said.

Eagles aren't the only ones eating lead in their meat.

Humans also unknowingly eat venison with lead fragments in it at times. Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning because their bodies absorb calcium, and therefore lead, very quickly.

In children, high levels of lead can do is lower their IQ, cause attention deficit disorder or worse, Neumann said.

Lead has also been linked to diseases in adults like kidney failure, she added.

There is a treatment available to both eagles and humans: chelation.

"It's injections twice a day for the eagles," Neumann said. "It combines with the lead in the blood in a way that the kidneys can get rid of."

Chelation is a four-week process of continually cleaning the blood. Even with treatment, the eagles may still die or never fully recover.

"Most of these eagles come in with really high levels," Neumann said. "Most are not making it."

Neumann, who said her whole family hunts deer, is calling on all hunters to use copper ammunition.

"An eagle can eat an entire copper slug and be OK," she said.

Copper ammunition, she admitted, is more expensive than lead.

Copper solid shotgun slugs might cost $15 for a box of five, where lead slugs are around $9 or $10, she said.

Dick Halter, owner of Shirts 'N Shooters in Le Mars, priced the difference for .22 long rifle cartridges and .270 caliber cartridges.

For the .22 cartridges, lead core bullets were $2.99 for a 50 pack and the lead-free variety were $6.99 for a 50 pack.

For the .270 caliber cartridges, the price is about the same.

"That surprised me," Halter said.

He noted that states are pushing more and more for non-lead ammunition.

In Iowa, lead shot is illegal to use while hunting waterfowl. The idea is to prevent animals from eating the shot off the bottom of wetlands or from eating animals injured by the lead shot.

California has strict regulations about lead bullets, he said.

Neumann said the change isn't happening fast enough.

She expects to see more lead-poisoned eagles in February with numbers peaking in March.

"Northwest Iowa is a travel pathway for eagles," she said. "As they cut cross country away from the reservoirs heading north, they scavenge more."

De Vos said the lead poisoning seen in eagles "is a shame."

"To have bald eagles just off the endangered species list, and now this," De Vos said. "It's not good."