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A bald eagle found near Lake Wilson last week has died from extreme lead poisoning.
“Everybody’s kind of in the dumps about this one,” said Randy Atkinson of Rocky Mount Wildlife Rehabbers.
The nonprofit animal rehabilitation organization captured the 10-pound female bald eagle Jan. 14 after responding to a call from Miller Robbins, a property owner who discovered the listless bird near his home.
Atkinson transported the eagle to the Cape Fear Raptor Center in the Pender County community of Rocky Point.
Scott Shimp, director of rehabilitation, said the bird came in to the raptor center highly neurologic with labored breathing.
“She had her head down. She was able to stand but very weak and lethargic,” Shimp said. “These are strong indicators of a lead toxicity within the bloodstream, which is very common within the eagle population in general, unfortunately.”
The raptor center had 21 bald eagles that came over the last year.
“Out of those 21 patients to come in, 15 of those birds tested at some level or another with lead within their bloodstream and we measure on a very small level,” Shimp said.
For the first time in the history, of all of these birds that the center has tested, the lead analyzing machine was unable to get a reading on the eagle’s blood lead levels, Shimp said.
The center X-rayed the bird and it was found that she had seven tiny fragmented lead pellets in her stomach from where she had eaten from a deer carcass.
“She had two small pieces of deer still within her,” Shimp said.
The center’s medical director, Dr. Joni Shimp, operated on the eagle and removed the seven pellets of lead from her stomach.
Despite five days of intense lead chelation therapy to remove the lead from the eagle’s bloodstream, the bird passed away about 8:30 a.m. Sunday.
Atkinson said he had been hopeful that the bird might survive.
“She was actually improving,” Atkinson said. “I left Saturday night and she was standing up. She gave us that eagle glare, so we were feeling good about her.”
Atkinson was headed to Rocky Point Sunday morning when he got the call that the bird had died.
According to Shimp, the bald eagle population is healthy and is increasing, but it is man’s activities that threaten the birds.
“They don’t have a natural predator,” Shimp said. “We are their main source of demise in the environment.”
Shimp said he is not against hunting, but said it is clear that hunters using lead ammunition is having an impact on bald eagles and other animals.
“When they kill a deer or if they happen to injure a deer and it gets away from them, as sometimes happens, the eagles and the vultures and the other birds of prey and scavengers of the forest, they find those carcasses and they eat them and that lead,” Shimp said.
“All it takes is one little tiny fragment and it’s enough to bring down that big majestic bird, so I would just like to advise the public if at all possible to invest in your environment by buying lead-free ammunition and being responsible with your fishing weights,” Shimp said. “Buy lead-free fishing lures and things like that. I know they are not common, but they need to be. The health of our national bird is kind of dependent upon this right now.”
Shimp said that 75 percent of the eagles the center treated during the last year had some lead levels.
“That’s saying something,” Shimp said.
“We are really pushing to try to get the lead out of the environment.,” Atkinson said. “If the lead gets back in the environment it’s also bad for us too. We are really pushing the managing the lead and getting the lead ammo out of the hunting. With waterfowl, they can’t use lead. They have to use steel shot. I think the tagline for everybody is “get the lead out.”