FREEDOM, Maine — A bald eagle rescued by a hunter and a wildlife biologist in Howland on Monday died a few days later of acute lead poisoning, according to an official from Avian Haven, a wild bird hospital in Freedom.
The mature female eagle ingested at least four pieces of lead birdshot, Diane Winn, who helps run Avian Haven with partner Marc Payne, said Thursday.
“This eagle had been scavenging — maybe a turkey or maybe a grouse,” she said. “Eagles are one of the most susceptible birds to lead poisoning. It takes only a tiny, tiny amount to be a lethal dose.”
The hunter noticed the bird perched on a low-hanging branch on a tree on the banks of the Piscataquis River in Howland on Monday. Mark A. Caron, regional wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said the hunter was able to get within 3 feet of the injured eagle.
“It never moved,” Caron said.
The hunter reported the sick bird, and Caron came out with a net, easily trapping it. They put it in a crate they carried out to the road, then Caron was able to meet a volunteer in Orono to transport the eagle to the bird hospital.
The lead in the bird’s blood was off the scale of Avian Haven’s screening instruments, according to Winn. Staff and volunteers did a stomach flush to remove the four pieces of intact shot and started aggressive chelation therapy to try to remove the lead from the eagle’s system, but it was not enough, she said. The bird’s breathing became labored and its wings drooped — signs of advanced lead poisoning.
By Wednesday, the bird was worse.
“We heard a commotion in her hospital cage and rushed over to find her on her back in what appeared to be a violent seizure,” Winn wrote on Avian Haven’s Facebook page. “Marc gently turned her over and positioned her comfortably. Her breathing became less labored and shallow, and then she slipped away. Her suffering was mercifully brief. She is now at peace. Thank you all for your prayers, reiki, good wishes and positive thoughts. She was a beauty.”
Winn said Avian Haven admits eagles and other birds suffering from lead poisoning every year. The staff and volunteers do what they can to help the sick animals, and some of them do recover. But the hardest part is that the lead poisoning is not necessary, she said, because non-lead ammunition exists and if used by hunters it would eliminate a major cause of the sick and dying birds brought to the sanctuary.
Winn cited the website huntingwithnonlead.org, created by hunters and wildlife biologists to promote the use of non-lead ammunition.
“This is not an anti-hunting thing,” Winn said. “From our point of view, it’s about finding safe alternatives to lead to hunt with. We want people to be more aware of the hazards of using lead ammunition — not just to birds but to people.”
Earlier this year, David Trahan of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine told the BDN that lead ammunition is not the biggest factor in lead poisoning in birds and that getting rid of lead ammunition is not the answer. He said the greatest source of lead in birds is from small sinkers used in fishing — which have been banned by state lawmakers in a move that was supported by SAM.
“Sportsmen have been very sensitive,” Trahan said then about banning lead ammunition. “We have done what we can, but this is a different debate.”
He said lots of questions need to be answered before hunters can find a suitable replacement for lead, including determining how non-lead bullets affect the accuracy of firearms.
The use of lead ammunition in hunting waterfowl was banned in 1991 by the federal government. Last fall, California became the first state to ban lead in hunting ammunition.
Maine can do more, Winn said, adding that the hospital has been seeing an increase in lead poisoned birds over the last two years. This might be connected to a rise in coyote baiting, she said, with the possibility that waste meat used to bait the coyotes is contaminated with lead.
Lead shot easily can fragment and travel through the meat of the animal that is being hunted, she said. Over the years, many people have donated packages of game meat to Avian Haven to help feed the eagles. Winn said they X-ray every piece of game meat before feeding it to the birds.
“It is not uncommon for us to find tiny lead fragments in meat that would otherwise end up on someone’s dinner table,” she said. “The fragments are tiny. Humans have a higher tolerance for lead than eagles do. But some of the federal agencies are saying there’s no such thing as safe exposure for pregnant women and children.”