Third Bald Eagle Patient Dead from Lead Poisoning
Update at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 9: Dr. Reich reported that the eagle died this morning.
In speaking with local media about the “unfortunate coincidence” of seeing three bald eagles that had lead poisoning within a short period, Dr. Reich noted that the birds had been found in distinct locations, so she did not have reason to suspect foul play. She expressed the hope that state legislation may outlaw the use of lead in hunting and fishing equipment to limit the exposure of wildlife to lead.
Of the three deceased bald eagles, Dr. Reich said only the the second was submitted to the college’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy). That eagle, which tested positive for lead exposure, did not have the extremely high lead levels seen in the other two. No signs of injury were detected on that eagle from the physical examination done by the Wildlife Medical Clinic, but the necropsy revealed a subdural hematoma—a bruise under the skin—on its head, indicating some sort of trauma had taken place.
Dr. Reich also explained that deceased bald eagles are sent to the National Eagle Repository, run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which provides a central location for bald and golden eagles found dead in the United States. The eagles’ remains are distributed to Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in federally recognized tribes for use in their traditional religious ceremonies.
A new patient arrived at the Wildlife Medical Clinic on Tuesday evening, but its symptoms made it seems like déjà vu all over again.
“It is very unusual to have received a third lead-positive bald eagle in just over two weeks—and the second one to have extremely high lead levels—during a season that I wouldn’t expect there to be a large amount of lead ingestion,” said Dr. Sarah Reich, a veterinarian who oversees care at the clinic, which is part of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Reich said October to early January, coinciding with most hunting seasons, tends to be the time when birds of prey are most likely to be exposed to lead. Predators are generally exposed to lead by ingesting prey that contained lead from a gunshot or a lead sinker used by fishers. Eagles are extremely susceptible to lead poisoning, more so than most other wildlife species.
Again, the clinic is appealing to the public for donations to help pay for treatment. The medicine used to treat eagles for lead exposure is more expensive than the medicines typically required by wildlife patients, especially considering the size of the patient.
The current patient additionally has a puncture injury to one eye that appears to have occurred within the past few weeks. Dr. Reich speculated that it may have been inflicted by another eagle because this is breeding and nesting season for eagles. The veterinary ophthalmologists at the college’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital have examined the injury and treatment has been initiated. It is unknown at this time if complete vision will return in the affected eye.
Neither of the other eagles that were treated for lead toxicity survived. The current patient was found in Charleston, Ill., while the others came from Decatur and Lowpoint, Ill., an unincorporated community in Woodford County. All three eagles showed signs that were “neurologically inappropriate,” such as not being able to stand or eat, which prompted the clinic to test for lead toxicity.
“To my knowledge, the Wildlife Medical Clinic has never had multiple cases of lead toxicity in bald eagle patients in a single season,” said Dr. Reich. In recent years the clinic has seen four to seven bald eagle patients in the span of a year.
The eagles found in Decatur and Charleston showed lead levels too high to be accurately measured by the instruments available at the wildlife clinic. “The levels were off the charts,” said Dr. Reich. She considers this patient’s prognosis as guarded to poor, but says that will not stop the clinic from attempting treatment. She hopes to send samples to a diagnostic laboratory in Michigan for a precise reading of the lead levels.