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Lead-poisoned Bald Eagle returns to the wild

Posted by thunsdorfer at Sep 20, 2013 06:50 PM |

Sept. 20, 2013: After months of intense treatment, a Bald Eagle in the care of the Audubon Society of Portland has made a full recovery from severe lead poisoning. He was released back into the wild today near Longview, Wash.

Lead-poisoned Bald Eagle returns to the wild

Bald Eagle - Tinsley Hunsdorfer

After months of intense treatment, a Bald Eagle in the care of the Audubon Society of Portland has made a full recovery from severe lead poisoning. He was released back into the wild Sept. 20 on the bank of the Columbia River near Longview, Wash.

The eagle was originally scheduled for release Aug. 23, but the day beforehand sustained a soft-tissue injury while flying in Portland Audubon’s off-site flight cage. When it became clear this week that the eagle’s injury had healed, Portland Audubon veterinarian Deb Sheaffer scheduled an immediate release.

Deb holding Bald Eagle - Tinsley Hunsdorfer
Veterinarian Deb Sheaffer holds the Bald Eagle the morning of its release - Tinsley Hunsdorfer

“It was in the eagle’s best interest to release him as quickly as possible,” said Sheaffer. “He was in excellent health and had once again met all of the standards we set for birds going back into the wild.”

While recovering from his injury, the eagle spent time on the ground and ended up damaging his tail feathers. To get him ready for release, members of Audubon’s animal rehabilitation staff used a method called imping to replace the damaged feathers with healthy ones molted by another eagle.

Found in May near Longview, Wash., the adult eagle likely became poisoned after eating the remains of an animal shot with lead ammunition, ingesting fragments of ammunition along with the carcass. Veterinarians credit a state-of-the-art lead-testing machine provided by the Oregon Zoo for quickly diagnosing and treating the poisoned raptor. In addition to having high levels of lead in its blood, an X-ray revealed metal in the bird's stomach.

“It’s always exciting to release rehabilitated wildlife, but particularly so in this case,” said Sheaffer. “The eagle was just so sick when it arrived at our door, and staff and volunteers have put many hundreds of hours into caring for the bird – it’s very rewarding to see him head back into the wild.”

During his time at Portland Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center, the eagle not only received treatment for lead poisoning, but also contributed to research that may help protect other wildlife from lead.

Bald Eagle, Sept. 20, 300 - Tinsley Hunsdorfer
The Bald Eagle on the morning of his release - Tinsley Hunsdorfer

In January, with an assist from the Oregon Zoo, Audubon launched a study of lead's impact on local birds like this eagle. For every raptor the care center admits, staff members draw a blood sample, running it through a state-of-the-art machine that tests for lead, and recording the results in a growing database to track the extent of exposure in local raptor populations.

"Reducing wild animals' exposure to lead in Oregon is one of our long-term goals," said Bob Sallinger, Portland Audubon conservation director. "Getting a handle on how many local birds are being affected and killed by the toxin is an important first step."

The research is made possible by a grant from the zoo's Future for Wildlife program, which funded Audubon's purchase of the Lead Care II machine — a small countertop device that in less than three minutes can determine the amount of lead in a drop of blood.

Lead poisoning, despite the damage it wreaks on birds' nervous and digestive systems, is tricky to diagnose without a blood test. Poisoned raptors may have easy-to-identify symptoms like paralysis and seizures, but some exhibit inconclusive symptoms like lethargy. Others die without showing any symptoms at all.

"Because lead poisoning is so hard to diagnose from symptoms alone, the lead-testing machine is helping us catch and treat more cases," said Sheaffer. "The machine’s quick results certainly made a difference for this Bald Eagle – his lead levels were so high that any delay in treatment could have been fatal."

In addition to raptors, Audubon's care center is testing all ravens and vultures that come through the door. Taken together, these are the Portland-area birds most likely to eat the remains of animals shot with lead ammunition.

Since January, the care center has collected lead levels from 15 species. The first round of results will be analyzed and published at the end of this year; more than 200 raptors, vultures and ravens pass through the care center in an average year, a good sample size for the study.

Bald Eagle in flight, release Sept. 20 - Tinsley Hunsdorfer
The Bald Eagle flies back into the wild - Tinsley Hunsdorfer

Video by Veronica Rose and Aaron Nelson.

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