Eagles Imperiled in Virginia

Dec 23, 2020

40 years ago, bald eagles were endangered in this country due to lost habitat, illegal shooting and contamination of their food.  Today, the national bird has made a comeback with more than 10,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.

But here in Virginia, experts say one threat remains, and they’re hoping the problem can be fixed.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia sees 30 to 40 injured eagles each year.  Two-thirds have some degree of lead poisoning.
Credit Wildlife Center of Virginia

Buddy is an eagle who hatched in 2008 at the Norfolk Botanical Garden where a live camera captured his arrival for a worldwide audience.  One month later he developed Avian Pox, a disease that deformed his beak and made survival in the wild impossible.   Today, he’s a full-time resident of the Wildlife Center of Virginia – an ambassador for the treatment and rehabilitation of all wild birds and animals.

Ed Clark, President and Co-founder of the center, says hundreds of eagles have been treated there, including one released with a transmitter in Stafford County.

“We had been keeping up with this bird every 48 hours for over five years, and we got to see the real success of our work.”

But this year the tracking device showed the eagle, known as W-20, had stopped moving, and the center was alarmed.  Taking a day away from the front desk, Connor Gillespie went searching for the bird.

“We kind of knew, based on the transponder, that it was near the tree line,  so that’s what I decided to do – to just walk the tree line, go back into the forest and then walk back," he recalled.  " It was very easy to overlook if it wasn’t for the white feathers, which was what I saw when I was walking past.”

He was sorry to see the eagle had died but determined to find out what had killed her.

“He brought her back to us, and she tested off the charts for lead poisoning,” says Ed Clark.  “You save something on day one, and you think that it’s safe, but you just never know.  The vigilance has got to continue.”

But so far, outreach coordinator Amanda Nicholson says, Virginians aren’t very vigilant, and 30-40 eagles are brought in each year for treatment.

“We know that for all of the bald eagles that come into the center, more than 2/3rds of them test with some level of lead in their body.”

So where is this poison coming from?  Veterinarian Karra Pierce points to hunters using lead bullets.

“Basically what happens is when a hunter is hunting, the lead fragments into tons and tons of little pieces, and even a fragment the size of a grain of rice would be enough to kill an eagle," she explains.  "It doesn’t need to eat a while bullet or anything like that.  It’s just little tiny pieces sprinkled throughout the meat, and they’re not very discriminant eaters.  They’ll just eat whatever’s in front of them.”

And often, Clark says, hunters leave them a buffet.

“A hunter will field dress a deer, where you remove the internal organs.  They are typically just left in the field for scavengers, and that was considered good practice before we really understood that lead bullets keep killing even after they stop moving.”

Now, veterinarian Pierce adds, lead is spreading through the food chain – sickening or killing other birds.

“We normally just think of these scavenging species as testing positive for lead, but I’ve been seeing lately in other species that I wouldn’t think of as prime candidates. We had a Cooper’s hawk come a couple of weeks ago.  They’re birds that eat birds – they hunt on the wing.  Same thing this week, we’ve had two owls that have had lead toxicity, which is really abnormal, and we’ve even have a few of our box turtles test positive for lead.”

In California, lawmakers didn’t hesitate.  They just banned lead bullets, and Clark says you can get alternative ammunition that doesn’t put scavengers at risk.

“The price is a little higher, but I always ask, ‘What’s a bald eagle’s life worth?’”

Still, he worries a call to end the sale of lead bullets would be politicized in Virginia – perceived as a battle between animal lovers from cities or suburbs and rural hunters.

“Here in Virginia hunting and fishing are in the state constitution as rights of a citizen,” Clark says.

So he’s hoping to educate hunters – to persuade them to do the right thing without legislation.  

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.