Franklin Countys First News

Wildlife caregivers stunned after three bald eagles poisoned by lead

A bald eagle was photographed by Jim Knox  Folks around the Wilton area have enjoyed watching this Eagle, as he's been seen in and around Wilson Lake. It has been reported that a Eagle was killed by lead poison on the lake. This picture was taken after one of the first Ice storms this year; Across from the Wilton post office over Wilson Stream

The  bald eagle was photographed by Jim Knox after one of the first ice storms this year across
from the Wilton Post Office over Wilson Stream.

WILTON - The bald eagle found in distress on Wilton Lake that died two days later from ingesting lead ammunition fragments was hard news for local residents who had come to appreciate the bird's majestic presence.

But, it was even more difficult for the wildlife rehabilitation center staff who tried to save its life, because Wilton's eagle was just one of three in Maine brought into Avian Haven, a wild bird rehabilitation center in Freedom during two weeks last month. All three were found to be suffering from lead poisoning after the eagles ingested  ammunition fragments believed to be found in scavenged hunter kills. Three eagles arriving within such a short period of time was alarming because they  might not see that many in any given year.

"It's heartbreaking and discouraging," said Diane Winn of Avian Haven.

On Jan. 19, Maine Game Warden Dan Christianson responded to the report of a bald eagle that had fallen out of a tree and had remained grounded on Wilson Lake. Christianson retrieved the bird and took it to the center.

Winn suspected lead poisoning right away as the eagle, determined to be an 18-year-old from Massachusetts according to its gold band's information, displayed symptoms of incredible weakness, lack of coordination and an inability to fly.

Even tiny specks of lead, which is soft and breaks into into small pieces easily on impact, can rapidly - within hours - affect a number of body systems. Nerve damage causes the bird appear clumsy and its red blood cells are prevented from carrying oxygen. Hardest to watch, Winn said, is when the eagle's respiration becomes incredibly labored. With its head back and beak open wide, a wheezing sound can be heard as it struggles to get enough oxygen, but can't.

Wilton's eagle arrived and underwent treatment immediately for lead poisoning. Its gastrointestinal track was flushed in the hope any lead fragments could be removed before damage is done.

"We got a piece of lead out," Winn said. The lead fragment, confirmed coming from ammunition, was a half centimeter in diameter, or 40 milligrams, an amount lethal to a bald eagle if it remains in its intestines.

The eagle was given a chelating agent, a chemical that bonds to heavy metals to reduce its damage to the body's tissues, x-rayed and its blood tested to monitor its condition. See the process at Avian Haven here. (Please note: Some of the video footage of an eagle in respiratory distress may not be suitable for everyone.)

"After that, it's wait-and-see for how much damage has already been done," she said.

Two days later, the Wilton eagle died.

The center's entry on the day the eagle died, which was determined to be caused by lead ammunition fragment ingestion: "Safe and warm, well-cared-for and helped in every way humanly possibly, this beauty put her head down this afternoon and peacefully slipped away. Thank you all so much for your prayers, good wishes, positive thoughts ... we all did what we could. Fly away Home, sweetheart."

The other two eagles brought in, one from the Boothbay area and the other Bowdoinham, are still alive but it's not yet known to what extent the damage from lead ingestion may be. Even if they both survive, it's still unknown whether they will ever be able to be released into the wild, Winn noted. Damage to the central nervous system can be permanent, resulting in the eagles unable to fly when wings won't function correctly.

The problem of lead poisoning is "so easy to solve," Winn said, "just switch to non-lead ammunition."

Venison is often donated by generous hunters to the center. All of it is x-rayed before it's fed to recovering predator birds because even the tiniest lead fragment that can't be detected by sight or feel, is deadly.

"There's no way to know unless you have it x-rayed," Winn said, adding that it's "not unusual" that a lead fragment is picked up in donated deer meat. In that case, she surmised, people may be unintentionally serving lead at the dinner table.

Rep. Lance Harvell of Farmington, a legislator and lifelong hunter, doubts that deer meat may be tainted as often as Winn described in the donations to the center.

By and large, Maine hunters use rifles to hunt deer. These days, bullets are made of lead with a copper jacket which Harvell said most often pass through the animal and don't leave fragments. Some people do hunt using buckshot which may be lead, particularly in suburban areas where hunters need to be closer in range to their target for the shot to be effective, he added.

With lead poisoning the leading cause of loon deaths in Maine, according to Maine Audubon data, last summer the Legislature passed a bill that went into effect on Sept. 1, 2013, banning the sale and use of lead sinkers weighing one ounce or less. The law will also prohibit the sale and use of bare lead-headed jigs that are 2.5 inches long or shorter when that portion of the law takes effect in 2017.

In October 2013, California was the first state to ban the use of lead ammunition for hunting. California's law goes into effect in five years, with phased-in regulation beginning next year. A ban was already in place in several counties in that state home to the endangered California condor, which is known to scavenge hunters' kills. Over the years, a high number of condor deaths has been attributed to lead poisoning from ammunition fragments, according to supporters of the ban.

In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned lead shot for use in waterfowl hunting and now steel ammunition is used at an alternative. Citing environmental concerns, the military announced plans to phase out lead bullets by 2018.

Supporters of banning lead ammo say it will protect wildlife, the hunting families who routinely eat game, along with ground and water contamination from missed shots. Lead has been banned from gasoline and paint because of human health safety concerns.

Besides the generally higher cost of copper ammo versus lead, Harvell said he's tried using solid copper bullets when hunting and found them not to be as effective in the kill. Copper bullets are lighter than lead and not as accurate nor do they expand as lead does as it passes through the body cavity, he explained. Currently, lead bullets have copper jackets which acts to keep bullets intact and cause rapid death.

"Lead has been used for many years and if it were affecting health negatively, you'd think we'd have seen there was a problem by now," Harvell argued. "I've been hunting all my life and I would have seen it."

"Everybody knows lead is bad," Winn countered, "yet people are using lead ammunition as if it's fine."

On Jan.29th, 10:45 AM BIG Eagle is seen on Wilson Lake, alive and well. Jim Knox

On Jan. 29 at 10:45 a.m., this  bald eagle is seen on Wilson Lake, alive and well.  (Jim Knox/Wilton)

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30 Responses »

  1. This is so sad. Eagles are beautiful creatures and a symbol of America. c'mon Lance-wake up- just because you haven't seen any ill effects from lead bullets it's obviously there. Denial is not the way to go, change can be a good thing and necessary at times like this. It's not like anyone wants to ban hunting itself here! We fishermen (and women) made the change over from lead sinkers just fine....

  2. It's terrible news. But the President of the United States has forgiven bald and golden eagle kills due to wind turbines (including right here in Maine) for the next 30 years. So do we care about them or not?

  3. Once again disappointed with lance harvell for doubting the plainly obvious. The solution is simple, inexpensive and staring us all in the face. Let's do the right thing for all of our wildlife and ban lead based shot. Doesn't hurt anyone.

  4. What a heart rending story. And such beautiful images of this majestic bird.

  5. Can anybody tell me why we are still using lead in the first place?

  6. Another solution looking for a problem, and using a majestic bird to push an agenda. The amount of lead in the environment from high powered rifle bullets cant even be measured its so small. What was a problem was lead shot used for waterfowl hunting, which is now all steel, and lead sinkers which have been banned, but many still use them. What DOES put a lot of small lead in the environment is the shot used for small game. I go thru 2 or 3 cases of bird shot every year. A change to steel would not be welcome, but I would at least consider it. Lets not fly off the handle California style. The state that brought us those useless gas cans you cannot use because they are such a lame design. forced upon us, by many of the same people pushing the lead ban. Lance is right on this one. Lead alternatives are expensive. Steal shot is harder to make, bismuth and tungston work well, but are VERY expensive. Look at what turkey loads cost......2 to 3 bux every time the trigger is pulled. Lets ban lead where it will do the most good.

  7. Chiefjay

    Really? Hunters have paid for more then there share in taxes and preservation laws over the years, and if you ban lead from bullets, you are only hurting the poor that need hunting as a food source. Lead Free ammo is twice if not three times the price of traditional lead ammo.

    This story is a plant to push the extremist agenda of banning hunting and weapons from the American people.

  8. Eagles ~
    Does everything have to be about Obama? It's tiresome.

  9. DR No,.......we use lead because its HEAVY, soft,and has a low melting point. It makes for superior ballistic coefficient and better sectional density. Bullets made from wood, rubber, steel, aluminum, etc, just dont work as well. However, tungston, and bismuth do, but they cost a lot. However, like I wrote earlier, copper jacketed bullets, from high powered rifles, simply dont amount to much of the lead flying around in the woods. Lead shotgun shells do, and are not copper jacketed. And, shotguns shells are used almost exclusively for small game, exactly what eagles eat the most of. Eagles are not big deer and moose eaters.Consider :If I go thru 3 cases of 1 1/4 oz .#7 1/2 , shotgun shells every year, thats 350 lead projectiles, times, 25 , times 10, times 3........thats 262,500 lead pellets. Every year. Thats just for me, one person. Oh , and that does not even count the 10 to 15 CASES of lead shot shells I use every year shooting skeet. Thats another million or more lead pellets down range on the back 40.Lets go after what would help. Nobody loves eagles more than I do, but lets try to keep our emotions in check here.Lance happens to be right on this issue.

  10. I know nothing about hunting, but from reading the article and the comments, it seems to me that lead bullets are not the problem, but lead in birdshot and buckshot is. So how do we solve the problem?

  11. Laura: I don't have an anti-Obama agenda. I am troubled that our country has a policy that allows the killing of eagles if you're a wind company.

  12. Lucille,,,,us duck hunters have adapted to steel shot, and as much as it pains me to admit it, we could also adapt to steel for bird hunting/rabbits/woodcock, ect. Its harder on the teeth, but doable. The rich hunters can buy bismuth or tungston.Trouble is Lucille, many of the people who want lead banned, will not stop there. They want hunting banned as well.All of it. So the only thing hunters can do it fight them. Some anti-hunters I have talked to are really right on the edge. They have that look in their eye of the most fanatical evangelist. Reasonable hunters and environmentalists could sit down and come to a workable agreement for all. For sure,there are nutty people on both sides, however you dont see a lot of hunters lying across the road ,blocking traffic, chaining themselves to a truck, living in a tree, fighting against some renewable energy project, such as wind power, which I am not a fan of by the way, all the while driving to said protest site with a car that burns an UN renewable fuel, and drinking and eating out of plastic cups and dishes made from the same. I guess the answer to your question is, Reasonably. It could work!

  13. Even if lead bullets are banned, I will continue to use them until all of the windmills in this state are removed..

  14. How ironic, that Lance Harvell is perfectly OK with lead, the toxic effects of which have been known for decades yet supports a bill that portrays GMO foods, which after numerous studies have been shown to be perfectly safe.

    If this isn't a case of pandering to constituents for votes, what is?

    As to "poor hunters needing to hunt for food" that is just so much malarkey. Hunting is a recreational sport and a rather expensive one at that.

    AND, lots of ammo is made so that the copper jacket peels back as it impacts, exposing more of the lead and increasing the damage as the projectile travels through the victim, er, prey, er the harvested wildlife.

    I trust the biologists more than I trust Lance.

  15. Sorry hutch, you are barking up the wrong tree, again. I am a lifelong deer hunter, and the owner of two rifles and a shotgun. So can your extremist agenda rabble. And if you are so concerned about the poor having food on the table why do you support those cutting the SNAP program all the time. Can't have it both ways.

  16. Funny, nobody said 'BAN OIL' when Exon Valdez killed how many birds????????

  17. I am throwing the bs flag out on this one. There is no proof that the eagle was eating from a hunters kill when it got the lead. They say its likely but no proof. Also what hunting season is going on during January. I know of rabbit, coyote, and bobcat, not the big hunting seasons that most people do. Think about it, the last article said the eagle ate the lead a few days before being found so the eagle ate the lead in January, when most hunters are sitting by the fire, oiling their gun and waiting for next year. If eagles are eating lead that are found in hunters kill, why are there no really reports of eagles dieing during deer season, you know when most people are hunting and leaving gut piles in the woods. Oh ya gut piles, you know what I see most of the time on gut piles, crows and ravens. Amazingly, never really heard of the massive amounts of crows and ravens dieing.

    This is all about trying to ban hunting or at least greatly reduce the amount of hunters. I know guys that loved duck hunting but when lead was banned they gave it up. They were not going to pay more for ammo that was not as good. Now all the hunters out there stop and think about this. The non-toxic rifle ammo is not as effective at dispatching animals as lead ammo. So when an effective and humane ammo is banned the anti-hunters will push harder to ban hunting because its no longer humane.

    Finally, I can afford to buy meat but harvesting my own saves me that expense. Also with all the meat recalls and China poisoning meat (basically) I'll deal with a lead in my diet (if there is any at all).

    Thank you Lance

  18. Just saying, how many birds are killed by wind turbines, cars? Are we going to outlaw those too or are we just going to keep going after the sportsman?

  19. Where were these biologists when wind turbines were given a pass to kill eagles? Not a chirp.

  20. I think I read this right. I wonder if doctor winn realizes that hunting season has been over for almost two months? I can't imagine this poor innocent eagle ingested lead from a hunter. Someone is pushing an agenda on the back of an innocent bird. Very sad to use peoples emotions this way. Can you say politically motivated because I can.

  21. On Sunday a man in West Gardiner was using a rifle to shoot at squirrels but accidentally shot an ice fisherman in the head. Hunting season can be a year round activity.

  22. Chiefjay,

    There is a big difference from earning the food on your plate (hunting/fishing) and be given the food on your plate, especially if your an able body adults.

    when is tax payer appreciation day anyway?

  23. We need to work at moving away from lead shotgun shells, work at changing the view that it's OK to kill eagles with wind turbines, and work on not having oil spills. Any one issue doesn't have to be exclusive of the other. I disagree that there is any kind of conspiracy or anti-hunting agenda. Maine has continued to support a person's right to hunt and fish.

  24. Sue, dont bet on it. The bear bait/trap/chase bill that will probably come up for a vote next fall will be close. My guess is, these people who are pushing for the "fair chase" law, with all the money they have behind them will win this time, taking 3 different types of hunting right out of the hands of Mainers. Some who make their livelyhood guiding bear hunts.You are right about one thing though, there is no " anti-hunting conspiracy". They are not hiding anything,..they simply want to outlaw all hunting altogether. Simple as that.. Most of these people make no bones about how they feel about hunting..

  25. When people bring in eagle carcasses that are the result of having flown into wind turbines, I'll believe it.
    As I recall, the pictures that have been used by anti turbine people of dead birds were shown to have been falsified. All the accounts I have heard of eagles being killed by wind turbines have been anecdotal. Thousands of birds die all the time just flying into buildings and power lines. I usually lose half a dozen song birds a year from them flying into my picture window.

    Claiming that alternatives to lead bullets is expensive doesn't fly with me either, since there is also the argument that bigger clips for assault rifles are needed, cause people use so much ammo in their shooting fun. In fact, the fear mongers in the NRA have driven the cost of ammo sky high already; yet the shooting enthusiasts are still buying it up.
    At any rate, the cost of ammo is a minor component of the expense of hunting.

    One more thing, I have seen .22 caliber bullets fragment extensively when they hit something hard, like a bone. Lots of people hunt with .22's for squirrels, rabbits,rats, raccoons, skunks, porcupines, woodchucks etc. Since some of what is shot is also considered vermin, the carcasses are sometimes left where they were shot and become carrion that is scavenged by eagles as well as other birds and wildlife. A lot of vermin are shot year round and the carcasses can be around for weeks or even months, depending on snow cover etc.

  26. There is really not too uch new about this

    The below study was unsussfully challenged by The Flat Earth Society

  27. Dear Chuck Davis,

    Thank you for posting the link to the USGS study.

    But as you are well aware, too many people prefer to stick to what they "know"... it doesn't matter if the real evidence reflects what is TRUE, FACTUAL, SCIENTIFIC or just common sense. Because they "pay taxes", they claim to be experts on any number of subjects.

  28. How about allowing only the use of shotgun slugs for deer/large game hunting? Simple, effective and inexpensive.

    Now, how many Condors and Eagles are killed by those beautiful looking, environmentally friendly, expensively majestic wind turbines every year?

    Jeff Holt- President
    Appalachian Ammunition, Inc.

  29. I can't remember the last time I saw a condor in Maine. I am nearly positive that if a condor got killed in a windmill in Maine it would have made the news.

    Last I knew, Deer slugs were also made of lead. So, unless they were made out of something else, then I would think using them instead of rifle bullets to protect eagles from lead would be moot.

  30. Every year thousands die in auto accidents, some even in environmentally friendly hybrid movement to ban any of them.