Wildlife Center sees increase in lead poisoning in Virginia Bald Eagles

Published: Jul. 4, 2022 at 11:27 PM EDT
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WAYNESBORO, Va. (WHSV) - On America’s Independence Day, people see many images of Bald Eagles, but the birds themselves are dealing with a problem. The Wildlife Center of Virginia is seeing an increase in lead toxicosis in the eagles across the state.

“We can see information like where they’re coming from, how they’re becoming injured, what treatments are effective, etc. And what we’re finding sadly is that these days the majority of Bald Eagles are admitted with some amount of traceable lead within their system,” said Alex Wehrung, outreach and public affairs manager for the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Wehrung said over half of the eagles taken into the Wildlife Center in 2021 had traces of lead in their systems.

Since the national bird nearly went extinct in the 1970s, Bald Eagle populations have resurged across the U.S. over the last 50 years. In the Shenandoah Valley, the population is as high as it’s been since the Wildlife Center began tracking populations, but the growth has brought problems.

“Eagles that would normally be spending time near those tidal rivers, near the Chesapeake Bay are being forced to move inland just for lack of space. Eagles especially during nesting season are territorial,” said Wehrung.

As eagles have become more spread out across Virginia, birds that would otherwise be hunting fish, are now looking for new food sources and often feeding on animal carcasses, some of which were shot by hunters.

The problem is that the carcasses shot by hunters often contain lead ammunition fragments that splinter throughout the carcass and are sometimes too small to see.

“Eagles are consuming these lead fragments of ammunition left behind in the field and amazingly a lead fragment the size of a grain of rice is enough to kill an otherwise healthy bald eagle,” said Wehrung.

Wehrung said because of this many wetland areas have banned the use of lead-based ammunition but further inland no such bans exist. The center is asking hunters to avoid using lead ammunition if possible. It says, if the problem is not addressed, it could eventually threaten the population recovery of the eagles.

“Is it possible to know today right now how will Bald Eagle populations fair five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road? Not right now, but we do know that if left unchecked it will have a disastrous effect,” said Wehrung.

You can learn more about the Wildlife Center and its work here.

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