This disabled Bald Eagle on Ocracoke suffered from lead poisoning. Photo by Rebecca Carbis

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By Rita Thiel

Bald Eagles are exciting to see but one of these visitors on Ocracoke didn’t fare so well.

In early February, Melinda Sutton noticed an odd-looking cat on top of one of the feeding stations behind her Tradewinds Tackle shop.

Not having her contacts in, she said, she didn’t have the clearest view, and when she approached it, she saw a large bird–a Bald Eagle.

Noticing her approach, the eagle did not fly away nor did it seem to be afraid.

As Sutton watched, he jumped to the ground and began walking toward her, and after turning in circles a few times and attempting to fly, the eagle made its way to the back dock of the post office. 

Thinking that this eagle was not exhibiting normal behavior and was in trouble, Sutton called wildlife rescuer Rebecca Carbis for help.

Sutton kept an eye on the eagle as it jumped off the post office loading dock and eventually into the edge of the woods.

“I felt incredibly blessed to have seen such a regal bird up close,” she said. “Even as he was stomping through the marsh, he was majestic.”

When Carbis arrived, she and friend Kyle Miller found the eagle literally “butt in the marsh” not moving. 

Carbis, who had wildlife rehabilitation certification when she lived in Georgia and hopes to obtain North Carolina certification, began trying to capture it.

“This beautiful bald eagle had me wading through brambles and marshes for over two hours trying to get to it,” Carbis said. 

Eventually they captured the eagle, and after securing it in a large box, Carbis drove it to Lou Browning at Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Frisco for treatment.

This encounter shows the danger for people approaching raptors or any wild birds or animals.

Jim Warren, executive director of the North Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville, Mecklenburg County, cautioned people should be extremely careful when trying to rescue any raptor (bird of prey) and especially Bald Eagles.

“These injured birds do not understand you want to help them,” he said. “Rather, they view you as a predator and will react accordingly.”

Trained staff use welder gloves for protection against dangerous talons.

Carbis posted updates on the eagle’s progress on Facebook noting that the bird had significant lead poisoning, causing damage to one eye that affected his ability to fly and hunt, as well as signs that it had been grounded for a while as it was underweight and in rough shape.

If the bird could not recover from these issues it would have to be euthanized.

“The eagle came in with severe blood poisoning from lead along with facial wounds and scratches and cuts on the talons and feet, possibly from territorial battles,” Browning said in an interview.

He verified the retinal detachment and determined the bird was a male.

Its severe condition made it unreleasable, Browning said, and untamable for educational purposes.

Before it became disabled, the Eagle was spotted Jan. 1 off South Point Road. Photo: C. Leinbach

He shipped the eagle to the Cape Fear Raptor Center, which euthanized the bird.

“It’s an unhappy outcome, but it’s the way it had to be,” he said.

Lead poisoning is an increasing problem for all birds of prey and waterfowl, which can be a health issue for humans.

Browning said nine in 10 injured eagles have lead poisoning, but he only sees about six a year.

“The number is going up,” he said. “Hatteras is loaded with (eagles).”

In 1991, federal legislation was enacted restricting the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl on federal land.

A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that even after the ban, lead toxicity in eagles increased, especially during deer hunting seasons.  Once in the environment, lead does not dissipate. 

Eagles, ospreys, hawks, owls, vultures and other scavenger animals have fallen victim to lead ammunition in “gut piles from deer cleans,” especially at this time of the year, Browning said.

One solution is for hunters to use steel or copper pellets for shotguns and rifles.

Once ingested, lead becomes toxic. As the toxicity levels rise in the birds, their ability to take flight quickly is affected, leading to many being hit by cars.

Raptors’ ability to hunt decreases to a critical level, leading many to starvation or dehydration, followed by seizures caused by neurological damage and death.

If the poisoned birds are found in time and lead levels haven’t led to irreparable neurological damage, treatments can be successful, Browning said. 

The Cape Fear Raptor Center treated seven eagles for lead poisoning in a month’s time from January to February last year.

Browning said that if people see raptors or owls just sitting along the sides of roads that can mean the birds are suffering from lead poisoning, but not always.

Once ingested, lead becomes toxic. As the toxicity levels rise in the birds, their ability to take flight quickly is affected, leading to many being hit by cars.

Red Tail Hawks, after feeding may sometimes sit quietly while digesting, he said. The telltale sign of this is a bunch of feathers around the bird.

There are a lot of federal regulations around eagles, Browning said.

“Eagles are the most protected bird in the United States and of national significance to native Americans,” Browning said.

Dead eagles are sent to the National Eagle Repository in Commerce City, Colorado, as a legally regulated method for Native American tribes to obtain eagle parts for use in various cultural rituals.

Even eagle feathers are protected, as Carbis noted.

She said, “There were some loose feathers in the box (in which she transported the bird) and I had to leave them there.”

No matter where in the state, people can call the Raptor Medical Center directly for injured and orphaned raptor 704-875-6521 x111. More information is on the center’s website: http://www.carolinaraptorcenter.org.

On Ocracoke, for injured birds, call Carbis at 678-558-7899.

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1 COMMENT

  1. What a sad but important story you did about the bald eagle suffering from lead poisoning. It makes you wonder how many other wild animals suffer and die from ingesting lead pellets while scavenging food.
    I’m sure any hunter would be devastated to know that they had accidentally killed a bald eagle by shooting another animal with lead shot. It certainly makes you wonder why we don’t have stricter laws prohibiting the use of lead in ammunition when other safer materials are available.

    I found this additional article on the subject-
    https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/get_the_lead_out/pdfs/health/Human_Health_Risks_from_Lead_Ammunition.pdf

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