Injured eagle on the mend

Lead poisoning a constant threat for majestic national bird

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A bald eagle found with lead poisoning near Lake Wilson has good prospects for recovery.

“I think she will survive,” said Randy Atkinson of Nashville, a member of the Rocky Mount Wildlife Rehabbers. “She is a very strong bird and we got the lead early.”

Miller Robbins found the bird in front of his house on London Church Road behind Lake Wilson on Sunday.

“He was just sitting on the path and we noticed something was wrong with him, so we decided to call the wildlife people,” Robbins said.

After coordinating with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission game warden, Atkinson responded to capture the adult female bird near Robbins’ home.

Atkinson had seen the eagle before.

“She has had lead poisoning before,” Atkinson said. “We know it’s her because of some special markings. This is her second time with lead poisoning.”

Lead is a toxin and it produces neurological symptoms.

“I have done this so long that I know the presentations of lead poisoning. They look kind of ruffled up and kind of unkempt,” Atkinson said. “They are usually sitting with their wings drooped and their head down like she was sitting when we found her.”

“When I suspect lead poisoning in any bird, we try to move it as quickly as possible in case it does need to go to surgery,” Atkinson said.

The rehabber immediately transported the bird to the Cape Fear Raptor Center in the Pender County community of Rocky Point.

Dr. Joni Shimp, founder and director of the center, performed surgery to extract the lead from the eagle’s stomach on Monday.

“That size bird should weight about 4,000 grams, which is about 10 pounds,” Atkinson said. “A piece of lead the size of a grain of rice is fatal. She had seven pieces in her.”

According to Atkinson, the bird, who is about five years old, is stable.

“She is standing. She is alert. She is not eating on her own yet, which is not a big deal post-op,” Atkinson said. “They are going to start offering her feed any day now. They do have the capability of tubing these birds, so she is not going without nourishment. We actually can put a feeding catheter directly into the stomach and feed them just like you would a person. That’s how she is getting her nourishment now and she is on a full regimen of pain meds and antibiotics.”

Atkinson said a process of removing heavy metals from the blood called chelation has already been started.

“We are very hopeful,” Atkinson said. “Her prognosis is very good.”

Usually an eagle can get lead poisoning from a deer shot by a hunter and either the carcass has been put out somewhere with a bullet still in it or the deer is shot and doesn’t die where the hunter can find it.

“When the bullet hits, it kind of splatters so you’ve got these little shards of bullet all over the place so that’s generally where they get it,” Atkinson said.

Secondarily, eagles can get the lead from ingesting fish. Fish absorb lead in the water.

According to Atkinson, 40 to 50 eagles died from lead poisoning nationwide just in the last few weeks.

Atkinson said hunters can help the eagles by changing hunting practices.

“If we could get hunters not to leave their carcasses out in the woods, especially if they have been shot, and try to get them to use non-lead ammunition,” Atkinson said. “I know it’s more expensive, but it is equally as effective but it’s not as toxic.”

Atkinson said there is actually a nesting pair of bald eagles in Wilson County, but the location is not publicized.

“We don’t want people around the nest. It is actually illegal to harass them,” Atlkinson said. “It’s nesting season right now. There are several nesting locations around Wilson and Nash counties. We are trying to keep their locations under wraps because they are mating and nesting right now.”

The population of bald eagles declined because of the DDT, a pesticide, but the birds are slowly coming back.

“They have been moving much more into this area,” Atkinson said. “I have been rescuing them. The first one I got was about 10 years ago.”

“Anywhere there is a large body of water, you may be finding an eagle,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson captured an injured bald eagle, an old male, in Edgecombe County on Tuesday.

The bird had been in a fight.

“It is mating season. It is very hormonal,” Atkinson said. “They will attack each other to defend their territory to defend their mates.”

This old bird got into a fight and lost.

“When eagles fight, they will talon each other,” Atkinson said. “They will lock talons and they are so incredibly strong they can actually penetrate into the bone, which happened on this bird. They are fighting for territory and a female.”

The injured bird died Tuesday night.

Bald eagles have been taken off the endangered species list, so there is now a very healthy population of the national bird.

“They fall under special protections. All birds native to North America fall under the federal Migratory Bird Act, which makes it a felony to interfere with a bird to destroy a nest or to have any part of that bird, including a feather,” Atkinson said. “Eagles fall under even more strict protections.”

Treating the female bird for lead poisoning in surgery will probably cost well in excess of $10,000, Atkinson said.

Both the raptor center and the rehabbers rescue are nonprofit organizations.

“This rescue is totally nonprofit. There are no paid staff. Everybody volunteers their time. The center relies totally on donations to do this,” Atkinson said.

For more information or to donate money to help the programs, go online to http://www.capefearraptorcenter.org/ or to Rocky Mount Wildlife Rehabbers on Facebook.

If you find an injured animal, call the Rocky Mount Wildlife Rehabbers at 910-297-7271.