Hunters urged to switch to copper ammo after bald eagle dies of lead poisoning

The veterinarian and founder of the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre is frustrated after a bald eagle died Tuesday from lead poisoning that measured at "over maximum toxicity" levels.

Sick bird found by Department of Natural Resources worker Christmas Eve in Cape Breton

The sick, skinny adult bald eagle weighed about three kilograms at the time of its death. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

The veterinarian and founder of the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre is frustrated after a bald eagle died Tuesday from lead poisoning that measured at "over maximum toxicity" levels.

The sick bird, believed to be a female, was found by a Department of Natural Resources worker in Cape Breton and rushed by a relay of volunteers to Helene Van Doninck's eagle pen in Hilden, N.S, on Christmas Eve.

"It was in bad shape," said Van Doninck, a specialist in the rehabilitation of birds of prey. "It was cold, and skinny, and not moving, and breathing funny, and doing all the lead signs."

'It's sad and it's unnecessary'

She said blood tests quickly confirmed her diagnosis — the bird was severely poisoned with lead.

She immediately started chelation treatment, which binds with the metal and is expelled through the kidneys, but the bird died Tuesday.

"It was probably sick for weeks before we got it, and it's sad, and it's unnecessary," she said. 

The level of lead in the eagle was 'over maximum toxicity,' according to veterinarian Helene Van Doninck. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Van Doninck is convinced the eagle was poisoned after eating the remains of wildlife killed with lead ammunition.

"Hunters, meaning well, will open up the animal and leave the guts and some parts behind to feed wildlife. However if they're using lead, it's a soft metal, it scatters into a pile of pieces as soon as it hits the body," she said.

"The birds learn very quickly that that's food, and then they'll eat it and become poisoned."

Free ammunition exchange program 

She said there are many scientific studies across North America and worldwide that have directly connected lead poisoning in scavenger species such as bald eagles to spent lead ammunition.

Van Doninck is encouraging hunters to drop by her non-profit centre, which is staffed by volunteers, or contact the Halifax Wildlife Association to exchange their lead rounds for copper.

The first box of rounds is a free, no-risk trial.

Van Doninck is encouraging hunters and fishermen to exchange lead rounds and tackle for non-lead versions. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

She said a box of non-lead rounds costs about $5 to $10 more, but it's a small price to pay to ensure both the health of eagles, and hunters who eat game.

Her campaign has garnered the support of the Nova Scotia Federation of Anglers and Hunters, she said.

'Tip of the iceberg'

Van Doninick said this is the first bald eagle to come to her centre and die from lead poisoning this winter.

While she's sometimes able to successfully treat a poisoned bird, she said this one may signal the "tip of the iceberg."

Van Doninck is the founder of Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, a non-profit staffed by volunteers. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

She said she's been watching the trend in poisoning for the past 15 years, and it's not unusual for as many as five to six to die in her care in one season.

Eagles mate for life, and the sick eagle was not alone when it was scooped up by the DNR worker.

"Did the other bird eat the same food? And if it did, it's a matter of time until that one has lead poisoning too."

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu

Reporter

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7, 7:30 in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.