Two ailing bald eagles found by property owners near Alderson and Caldwell in Greenbrier County on Thursday were found to have toxic levels of lead in their systems.
Despite emergency treatment at Three Rivers Avian Center at Brooks in Summers County, one of the birds succumbed to the poisoning on Friday.
“They came in with lead levels too high to read,” said Wendy Perrone, TRAC’s executive director. “They had enough lead in them to put a normal person in the hospital.”
The eagle TRAC picked up at Caldwell “had been sitting in a lady’s yard near the Greenbrier River,” said Perrone. “It could fly a little, but it was obviously sick.”
A retired farmer near Alderson noticed the second bald eagle. “It was up in a tree near his place and wouldn’t come down,” Perrone said. “He put some deer meat out and kept an eye on the eagle. It finally came down on Thursday, and he called us.”
Perrone and her husband, Ron Perrone, TRAC’s educational director, captured the birds, both mature males, and transported them to their clinic. There, they joined a third bald eagle lead-poisoning patient, a second-year female found ailing near Frost in Pocahontas County, in mid-November.
Lead poisoning among eagles and other birds of prey is far from a rare diagnosis at TRAC. The center checks lead levels in every eagle admitted to the facility, regardless of whether they were brought in primarily for treatment of injuries or other suspected maladies.
“Almost 100 percent of the eagles we get have high lead levels,” Perrone said. “From July 1 of last year to June 30 of this year, we treated four bald eagles and one golden eagle. All of them had high levels of lead. The golden eagle died from it. Only one eagle we’ve treated in recent years didn’t have high levels of lead.”
Symptoms of lead poisoning in eagles can include seizures, lethargy, inability to stand or fly, blindness, disorientation, brain damage and organ failure.
“The treatment seems to go on forever,” Perrone said. Muscle injections are administered two or three times daily of a drug that allows lead entering the blood system from affected bones and organs to be excreted through the kidneys.
“After nine of these treatments the eagles rest for two days, then we start again,” Perrone said. “They’ll go through two or three rounds of this and then we’ll retest their lead levels” to gauge progress, she said.
Perrone said the elevated lead levels are likely caused by eagles “eating dead animals with lead bullets in their bodies. Even if hunters cut out the bullet that killed their deer, fragments of lead go through much of its body,” she said.
TRAC’s website has a link to a 2015 study by two WVU researchers, joined by professors from Virginia Tech and Michigan State, that investigated the degree to which wildlife in the eastern United States is exposed to lead contamination. The study involved the forensic examination of 108 turkey vultures and black vultures from the region. All 108 of the birds turned out to have lead levels in their bones “indicative of chronic exposure to [human produced] lead.”
Perrone said the high incidence of lead-poisoned birds of prey seen at TRAC’s clinic has led to the organization favoring a switch to copper or other non-lead bullets by hunters.
A national ban on hunting waterfowl with lead shotgun pellets went into effect in 1991. A rule enacted on the last day of the Obama administration that banned all lead ammunition on federal wildlife refuges was revoked by Ryan Zinke, President Trump’s new secretary of the Department of the Interior, on Zinke’s first day in office.
While Perrone plans to keep working with the Caldwell eagle, the eagle from Pocahontas County is responding favorably to treatment. “Her first re-test came back great last week,” she said. “I think we’ll have a good outcome with her.”