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Lead toxicity still an issue for raptors

February 07, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill


According to Amanda Walsh from Northwoods Wildlife Center, the rehabilitation center has taken in six bald eagles since October 2019, all of whom had some lead toxicity, and some of which needed to be euthanized, as the levels of lead in their system were too high to be treated.
“Usually when we get a call about an eagle, it has its wings splayed, and they can’t hold their head up,” Walsh, NWC advanced wildlife rehabilitator, said. “They can’t stand. If you approach an eagle that doesn’t have any fight in it, there’s obviously something wrong.” 
Walsh said the rehabilitation center also gets in eagles that have been injured, for instance by being hit by a car. Often, though, the eagle will have high levels of lead in its system. Because the eagle is weakened from the lead toxicity, she said, it may not be able to avoid hazards such as vehicles that would normally not be an issue.
“We’ve talked about the issue before,” advanced wildlife rehabilitator Amanda Shirmer. “But a lot of people still don’t know about it.”
The staff takes a blood sample from each eagle that comes in and send it in to the lab through the veterinarian office next door to the wildlife center.

Stumpy Stu
One of the eagles, affectionately called Stumpy Stu, has nerve damage suspected to be from lead toxicity. At 40 ug/dL, staff considers treatment for lead toxicity. Stumpy Stu came in with a blood level of 51. It was decided to start treatment on him. 
That treatment consists of two different medications. The first medication, Succimer, adheres to the lead in soft tissues, taking it along to be expelled from the body as waste. The second treatment, Calcium EDTA, draws the lead from harder tissues such as bone, and also some internal organs.
Stumpy Stu, as with all eagles that undergo treatment, was on each medication for four days, and gets that treatment once per day. Then he was off medication for four days. After that the second medication was administered once per day for four days. Both medications are hard on the animal’s kidneys, so rehabilitators need to let the animal rest between rounds of treatment. Then the animal is retested. During the treatment, Walsh said, raptors are tone fed.
After his treatment, Stumpy Stu’s level was at nine ug/dL.
“It can dissipate out of his blood, or the lead could come out of other places in his body and the level still can come back up,” Shirmer said. For that reason animals are tested again after a couple weeks to be sure the levels of lead in their system has stayed down.

What you can do
Lead can get into the environment due to lead shot from hunters as well as lead sinkers used by anglers. Raptors will ingest the lead, for instance from a gut pile during deer season. Because the animal cannot metabolize lead, it sits in its crop or its digestive system and slowly dissipates into its system. For that reason, it is not uncommon for an eagle brought in to a rescue such as Northwoods Wildlife Center to have an uptick in their lead toxicity levels once they come in.
Post deer season starts the worst season for raptors when it comes to lead toxicity. Through winter, too, Shirmer said, when food is more scarce, they tend to see more raptors like Stumpy Stu come in with lead toxicity.
“We’re not against hunting at all,” Walsh stressed. “We are just pro-responsible hunting. And I think hunters want to do the right thing — if they know what it is.” 
She said wildlife rescuers would simply like to see hunters and anglers use more environmentally responsible alternatives to lead.
For hunters, Shirmer and Walsh recommend hunting with copper bullets. They do not fragment like lead bullets and also do not have the unintended consequences of harming other animals such as raptors. Shirmer pointed to steel shot, which has been legislated to be used in waterfowl hunting, leading to fewer cases of lead toxicity in some birds. She said it has even allowed the trumpeter swan to come back from the endangered list. 
Walsh and Shirmer said if someone finds an eagle, as with any other animal, that seems to be distraught or in need of help, the first course of action should be to call the center. From there, the staff can help the person know what to do.
In some cases where a caller is confident in handling a large bird such as an eagle, and has the proper safety equipment, the staff can walk the through how to safely contain the animal so it can be brought in. In other cases, a volunteer can be dispatched to come and pick up the animal.
“It’s better to give us a call first, because a lot of time what you’re seeing might be a normal behavior and you just don’t know,” Walsh said. “We do get a lot of people up from Chicago and from the cities that don’t know about our wildlife up here.”
“We get calls about fledgling eagles,” Shirmer added. “They are on the ground. He’s just a fledgling, and he’s just learning to fly, so he is on the ground a lot.” 
Other behaviors such as sitting with an animal that has been killed in some other way and not flying for hours, or sitting in one place drying off after a swim before they can fly away, are all natural behaviors, but may be easy to misinterpret. 
Last year, the center took in animals from 25 different counties in the state. Shirmer said that, even as far as the Ashland area, Northwoods Wildlife Center is usually the closest place for an animal to be brought in. 
While some hunters and anglers have started to use alternatives to lead, there is still a large enough amount of it on the landscape to continue to cause negative effects in bald eagles and other raptors such as loons. 
Walsh and Shirmer asked that hunters and anglers look for those alternatives to lead. Tungsten is a good alternative for anglers, and there are other, softer materials being used now for split shots. A simple search on the internet will bring up several options for those looking to do something more environmentally friendly. There are even limestone sinkers on the market that are a great option.
The Northwoods Wildlife Center has gone to all lead free meat donations, and Walsh said many hunters and others have brought in those donations. Fresh road kills as well as animals harvested with a bow or crossbow, or even hunted with copper bullets, have all been brought in and are always welcomed.
The Center always welcomes donations. Walsh said they are currently in need of 55-gallon trash bags, paper towels, astroturf, printer paper and fresh produce such as celery, berries, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. 
Anyone finding an animal they suspect is in need of help can call the rescue at 715-356-7400, which is a 24-hour per day line.
Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at [email protected].

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