Posted by: Wild Instincts | December 12, 2015

Long Road to Free

On March 5, 2015 a female bald eagle from Manitowish Waters was admitted after being found near a road. Even though she was injured she gave one of our rescue drivers and a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warden a run for their money trying to catch her. The deep snow didn’t help matters, but they caught her.

She had some bruising around her left elbow and a slight dislocation of her left wrist. Even though she didn’t act like a bird with lead poisoning, she also had an elevated blood lead level of 23.1 micrograms per deciliter.P1100917

There are a couple different schools of thought in wildlife rehabilitation circles regarding lead levels in birds. Some will not treat the bird or consider the treatment a success if blood lead levels are 20 or below. There are others that believe birds should have lead levels too low for our analyzers to read.

We fall into the latter category. ANY lead is too much lead.

We began removing the lead from her body immediately by a process called chelation. A chemical is injected into the bird that binds heavy metals to it so the body can excrete them. This treatment is a lot like chemotherapy for cancer except we are using drugs to fight lead instead of cancer cells. The chelation treatment, like most chemo, does not differentiate between the good we need for survival and the bad we are trying to rid from the body. It is extremely hard on the bird. Some birds are so compromised from such highly elevated lead levels, they cannot tolerate the treatment and die. But they also cannot tolerate such high lead levels and die. A horrible situation that is totally preventable.

Our treatment protocol depends on how high the lead level. Because the treatment itself is so very difficult for our already compromised patient, we chelate for a number consecutive days and then rest them for three. There is a new theory that chelation is not as difficult on birds as mammals like once thought and there is no need to take a break. We still like to rest them. Unless their levels are very elevated. Then we will be more aggressive with the chelation.

In general, after a couple rounds of chelation, we retest lead levels. Her retest went up to 37.0! Initially she was not stable enough to put through the process of x-raying her and our treatment plan would not have changed. She was already being treated for lead poisoning. It was apparent, however, something was in there causing this and now she was stable enough to transport her to the vet for radiographs to find out what.Eagle 1 of 2w

The x-rays revealed a piece of lead in her GI tract. Wild Instincts was the first in Wisconsin to use endoscopy to remove lead sinkers from loons. We investigated the possibility of using an endoscopic procedure with this eagle. Unfortunately, the position of the particle made it impossible to get a scope either down to it or up to it depending on what direction we could possibly use the endoscope.

Plan B involved a barium study. Barium is giving to an animal and a series of x-rays are taken at different time intervals to follow the barium through the GI tract. This can alert us to issues or even whether something is imbedded inside an intestine or outside the GI tract in the body cavity or even muscle. The barium study confirmed the particle inside the GI tract and positioned in an un-retrievable area.

This moved us quickly to The Last Resort Plan- continue chelation and supportive care until the particle reduced enough for the eagle to pass it or she died. Thus began months of rotations of chelation, rest, retesting blood levels, more chelation, etc. Her lead level readings rollercoaster-ed all over the place, but she remained a bird not indicating her underlying health struggle.

Finally, on November 12, 251 days after she was admitted, a final x-ray revealed the lead particle was gone and a final blood lead level test was too low to read!

The volunteer who had the challenging time catching her was giving the honor of releasing her. On November 27, after 267 days with too many man-hours of care to count, she was returned to the wild.


Days in Care: 267

Injections given: 63+

Bottles of chelation drug ($25/bottle): 7+

Pounds of venison, fish, muskrat fed: 400+

Cost to replace lead fishing tackle & ammunition with non-lead alternatives to prevent this: mere pennies!

Flying free again…PRICELESS!!


Spread the word. Lead poisoning in wildlife is preventable. Replace all your fishing tackle and ammunition with lead free alternatives.





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