Institute Identifies Eagles Poisoned by Lead

Four bald eagles admitted for treatment at the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation (AIWC) over a two-month period, have been confirmed suffering from lead poisoning. The birds were found in different locations of south central Alberta. All four eagles have died.

Calgary, Canada, February 13, 2010 --( Between mid-November and early January, four bald eagles suffering from similar symptoms were admitted to the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation (AIWC). All four died soon after admission and none had an obvious cause of death. Biologists at AIWC, Dianne Wittner and Tara Tamasi, suspected lead poisoning was to blame. So far, tests have confirmed their fears in at least two of the cases; lab results show lead levels 5 times and 9 times the lethal level, respectively.

Studies of lead poisoning in eagles and other raptors show the source of lead poisoning in the vast majority of cases is due to lead shot or shards of lead, consumed by eagles scavenging on gun-shot waterfowl and game carcasses left by hunters. Though legislation in the 90’s prohibited the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl, it has been well documented that the problem persists.

Wildlife suffering from lead poisoning can be treated - in many cases successfully - if captured early enough. However, test results can take 3 days to 2 weeks, delaying a confirmed diagnosis. “By the time the eagles are sick enough to catch, it may be too late to save them,” says Wittner. “However, we could save more of them if the birds were found and reported to us sooner. We could get quicker lab results.” Some protocols call for the initiation of treatment immediately, before test results come back, despite possible side effects. “In future, we may have to go that route,” Wittner says.

Staff at AIWC encourages people to report sick raptors immediately. Though four eagles may not seem like a lot, there were, undoubtedly, many more affected. Eagles migrate through the foothills where they can be very difficult to spot, healthy or sick.

“Environmental toxins are a serious problem for all wildlife,” says Wittner. “We hope to initiate a two-year study of this issue. This is an entirely preventable condition.”

Staff at AIWC deal with a wide array of human-created hazards that result in high mortalities of wildlife. Lead poisoning can be accompanied by secondary symptoms such as pneumonia and infection. Regardless, it is a horrible death for many animals that feed on lead-laced carcasses. Albertans who care about the future and/or the study of raptors in this province are invited to get involved by contacting the staff at AIWC.

Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation
Dianne Wittner