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A Juvenile Eagle Prepares to Return to the Wild

Featured Article

Where Eagles Mend

Blue Ridge Wildlife Center Rehabs Raptors to Soar Again

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson, Blue Ridge Wildlife Center

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

Like any good doctor, Dr. Jennifer Riley remembers exactly what her patients are suffering from, how they were injured, and where those who survive should be released, so they can find their way back to their homes and mates. Unlike human patients, however, “Dr. Jen’s” non-resident charges have no names.

“We don’t name the eagles because we want people to remember that these are wild animals, not zoo animals or pets,” she explained. Dr. Jen is Director of Veterinary Services at Blue Ridge Wildlife Center near Boyce, Virginia, the only wildlife-exclusive veterinary hospital serving Northern Virginia. As such, the center was the recipient of an eagle, found stumbling near the road in Leesburg while feeding on a deer.

People assumed that the eagle was hit by a vehicle, but Dr. Jen says there’s actually no evidence of that. Rather, the eagle’s ailment seems to be an insidious and pervasive malady that has infected all but two eagles[JR1]  she has treated in her four years at the center: lead poisoning.

“To our knowledge, she’s a pure lead toxicity case,” says Dr. Jen. “I think people saw her scavenging a deer along the side of the road and assumed she was hit by a car.” Lead poisoning destroys all bodily functions over time, but it is primarily a neurologic toxin, so it affects the brain. Eagles with blood poisoning, “droop their wings really low. Their head hangs low; they’re disoriented; they have ataxia. If you see them walking, they seem uncoordinated like they’re drunk.”

But how does an eagle get lead poisoning anyway?

“Ammunition shards are primarily what we see,” Dr. Jen says. “They’re eating the lead fragments that are covered in game meat. If it’s not covered in meat, they wouldn’t eat it,” Dr. Jen asserts. She explains, “Lead bullets are very soft, even those having a lead core with copper jackets, so when [lead ammunition] kills something, tiny microscopic fragments fly off of that bullet... sending flecks of metal off into deer tissue.” Deer hunters often field dress deer and leave a gut pile, with as much of the wound tissue as they can remove. Scavengers then come out and eat that gut pile and the lead particles it contains. Hunters could address the problem by burying remains of hunted game, but that still leaves lead in the environment

The only “sure fire” way to eliminate the problem is to use non-lead ammunition such as copper, Dr. Jen insists. (More information is available here: http://bit.ly/non-lead.) 

Eagles brought in for treatment are scanned to reveal the presence of physical lead fragments – present in about half the cases. Veterinarians then either remove the shards surgically, or if they are too far down the birds’ GI tract, administer Metamucil fiber to push it through. The birds then receive treatment with chelating drugs that bind with and remove the metal from their blood. The diagnostics and therapy cost more than $1,000/week per bird.

The center, and others like it in the state, operate entirely on private donations, and receive no government funding. Of the nearly 2,300 patients treated at Blue Ridge Wildlife Center last year, the largest single portion comes from Loudoun County. While the center sees “massive amounts of lead toxicity in our scavenging species,” it is usually some other trauma that ultimately brings them in for treatment.

As an example, another eagle patient was electrocuted. Number 20-0077 receives subcutaneous fluids, medication for the pain, and treatment for her eyes after they were damaged in associated trauma. Number 20-0064 from Stafford, with a six-part ulna fracture, is also on pain medications and needed her fracture stabilized. Like all 4 eagles, her lead levels have declined.

Dr. Jen is hopeful that the fact that the eagle is our national symbol, combined with more awareness of the after-effects of lead on wildlife, could spark advocacy for eradicating lead ammunition. That said, so long as there’s still lead in the carcasses eagles scavenge for food, the problem could recur. Dr. Jen says, “Eagles don’t want to hunt unless they actually have to. They’re pretty lazy actually and will choose to eat carrion when the opportunity arises.” It’s hard to believe when you’re staring one in the eye with a 7-foot wingspan and talons the size of your fist, but she should know.

Fortunately, she’s sharing her knowledge with interns, as Blue Ridge Wildlife Center is a teaching hospital that trains veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinary technician students in addition to individuals interested in rehabilitation. Wildlife Discovery Camp also trains young conservationists about wildlife: 6- to 9-year-olds, June 15-19 and July 13-17; and 10- to 14-year-olds June 29-July 3 and July 27-31. Interested parents, as well as teachers and coordinators, counselors-in-training (ages 14-17) and education interns (over 18) should all email education@blueridgewildlifectr.org with questions.

On the web, there’s also a “wish list” for donations, topped, of course with funding. See: https://www.blueridgewildlifectr.org/content/wish-list. There’s even a sign outside Dr. Jen’s door with a plaque declaring: “This Space Available / Naming Rights / $50,000.” Maybe we could interest Slapshot – another notable, local eagle who has a name? 

  • Dr. Jen and her Team Suture a Cooper's Hawk
  • Dr. Jen Shares Eagle Scans Showing Lead Fragments
  • A Stafford Eagle Recoups from a Broken Wing
  • Dr. Jen Treats a Clouded Cornea Carefully
  • Lead Particles Glow in X-Rays
  • An Electrocuted Eagle Receives Fluids
  • Battered But Unbowed
  • Because I'm a Girl. Wanna Make Something of It?
  • A Juvenile Eagle Prepares to Return to the Wild