A patient at the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Sitka died last month, in the facility’s first-ever loss to lead poisoning.
Jen Cedarleaf is the center’s avian rehabilitation coordinator. She says the bald eagle was found ailing in Ketchikan on January 14, and delivered to Sitka for treatment the next day.
“He could not stand. He was sitting on his hocks, you might call them. He had some mucus discharge from his mouth, and he sounded very congested when he would breathe. He had a hard time keeping any fluids down that we tubed into him. And he was standing with his wings out, so that he looked like a triangle.”
Cedarleaf says this is probably what eagles to do maintain their balance when stressed.
Cedarleaf says the Raptor Center’s veterinarian, Vicky Vosburg, made her initial diagnosis based on the symptoms, and an x-ray confirmed it.
“Well he had three little pieces of lead in his stomach when we first x-rayed him. When we x-rayed him the next day, two of the pieces had passed, and he had only one left.”
Cedarleaf says it’s impossible to know how much lead the eagle originally ingested – or where the lead came from. The pieces were too small to be identified as fragments of a bullet, fishing lure, or something else entirely. She says that just because lead poisoning in eagles is rarely seen in Alaska, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily rare everywhere. The raptor center in Minnesota, she says, sees several cases each winter.
“I think the reason we don’t see them is because we live in such a huge state. There’s so much wilderness. The birds could ingest the lead, fly off, and it doesn’t affect them for maybe a week.”
There are drug therapies for lead poisoning, but the Raptor Center had none because cases are so few and far between. It probably would not have mattered. Cedarleaf says surgery also wasn’t an option, since the bird was too far gone. It died on January 17, two days after arrival.
“If I never see another eagle die from lead poisoning again it will be too soon, because it was just not a fun thing to watch this poor bird suffer, knowing that there’s nothing you can do.”