By Karla Bloem

International Owl Center Executive Director

On Dec. 10, Karen Kragness spotted an adult bald eagle, with its beautiful white head and tail, standing on the ground in her yard.

Bald eagles often scavenge, so it isn’t that unusual to see one on the ground. But it was still there the next day.

Another eagle came down to visit it and eventually flew away. Karen was getting suspicious that something wasn’t right.

On the morning of Dec. 13, she called the DNR in Caledonia and reported the bird to forester Valiree Green.

Valiree called me, but I didn’t hear my phone ring. It wasn’t until afternoon that I saw I had a message and called Karen back.

Because we get so many calls about sick and injured raptors in the area, we use volunteers to pick up and transport the birds, which need to go all the way up to The Raptor Center in St. Paul.

Dean Ellingson is my go-to person for the Spring Grove area, and he has rescued several eagles already. Karen knew Dean and gave him a call.

Dean arrived as soon as he could, later in the afternoon. He caught the eagle without too much trouble and put it into his very large dog carrier.

Since it was too late to get it to The Raptor Center that night before it closed, he kept it overnight in his heated garage and we made arrangements with another volunteer to bring it to St. Paul the next day.

According to Dean, once it got settled at his place it stood with its beak pointing straight down.

Not a good sign. This normally means the bird has lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning is difficult and expensive to treat, and most lead poisoned eagles I’ve dealt with have died or been euthanized.

Where would the lead come from? It’s almost always lead ammunition. Bald eagles scavenge, so they eat deer gut piles, dead deer that haven’t been recovered and other dead animals left outdoors.

Every year the lead poisoned eagle admissions soar at The Raptor Center shortly after gun deer season opens.

How common is lead poisoning in eagles? VERY. The vast majority of eagles admitted to raptor centers across the country have measurable levels of lead in their bodies.

Eagles are particularly susceptible to lead for some reason, and it only takes tiny, tiny fragments in their digestive tract to weaken them, cause respiratory distress and nasty seizures.

I deal with an average of one to three seriously lead poisoned eagles every year from this area, usually during or shortly after gun deer season (or after a snow melt exposes carcasses again.)

The eagle survived the night at Dean’s and Dean met me and another volunteer at the International Owl Center in Houston the next morning.

We transferred it to one of the Owl Center’s dog carriers so Dean could have his back.

In the process the eagle was making hoarse grunting sounds, indicating the respiratory distress of lead poisoning. It didn’t struggle much.

Our other volunteer got it up to The Raptor Center that day, where they also suspected lead poisoning.

An x-ray revealed lead fragments in the digestive tract, and although they could flush them out, the eagle had already absorbed too much lead. It was euthanized since it wouldn’t recover.

Lead poisoning in Bald Eagles is a huge problem. Ask any wildlife rehabilitator. It is totally preventable: people just need to switch to non-lead ammunition.

When it comes to deer hunting, this means you need to have a rifled barrel. Yes, copper is more expensive than lead, but most hunters I know don’t use that many bullets per year, so the increased cost is almost nothing.

Switching to non-lead ammunition isn’t just good for eagles, it’s good for people too.

The Minnesota DNR did some lead ammunition fragmentation tests a few years ago. They concluded that there is no safe distance from the wound channel beyond which lead does not spread, deer that are shot in a major bone (like the hip) should not be consumed by anyone, and that pregnant women and children under the age of six should not eat lead-shot venison at all.

I encourage you to go to the DNR website and read the details of their research.

If you search more broadly, you can even find all the papers presented at a conference dedicated solely to the impacts of lead ammunition on wildlife.

Lead is a neurotoxin, and there are no safe levels. That’s why we removed lead from gas and paint, so in a way it’s crazy we still use it in ammunition so that we ingest it.

Test show that about 25 percent of all ground venison has lead fragments in it, which are too small to see.

What can you do to help? Use bow and arrow to hunt. If you use guns, use non-lead ammunition.

If you simply can’t do either of these, at least bury your gut piles.

If you don’t hunt but are a landowner, require those that hunt on your land to use non-lead ammo.

You CAN make a difference. Just ask the deer hunter who stood watching an eagle having severe seizures from lead poisoning out in the woods last year by Nodine.

He had hunted archery for years and had just switched back to gun. He went pale and vowed he would never use lead ammunition again.

A few dollars more is nothing to prevent an eagle’s agony from lead poisoning and to keep your family safe.