Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Get the Lead Out!

The Raptor Center, University of Minnesota
Having lived as an Educational Ambassador at the RMRP for as many years as I have, I am well acquainted with the tragic and often often fatal effects of lead ingestion in raptors.  In an effort to Get the Lead Out, this blog post is all about lead ingestion in raptors: how it happens, effects of lead in the system, what the RMRP does with lead-positive birds, and how you can help Get the Lead Out.

How It Happens: 
Radiograph from Hunt et al. (2006) shows lead fragmentation in
thorax of white-tailed deer killed by a standard copper-jacketed,
lead-core, soft-point hunting bullet
Did you know Bald Eagles are not just predators, they're scavengers as well?  In fact, scavenged food makes up a large portion of a Bald Eagle's diet.  Turkey Vultures are, of course, purely scavengers, getting all their food from animals that have already died.  Other raptors also scavenge when they get the chance, and can you blame them?  It's a hard life hunting for survival, and when a free meal offers itself up, any raptor intent on survival will take it.

Unfortunately, while dining on the carcass, these birds will accidentally eat anything lodged in the meat, including the material left behind if the animal was shot.  And if bullet used to kill the animal was lead (lead bullets tend to fragment into many pieces upon impact), the birds can end up eating lead with their breakfast.

Lead shot in a Bald Eagle's gizzard (biological diversity.org)
Why It's Bad:
Because lead is toxic!  Remember how you aren't supposed to lick lead paint?  Well, same goes for eating lead bullets.  In Bald Eagles, the largest raptors in the United States, it only takes a piece of lead the size of the tip of a pencil to cause lead poisoning.  Now think about a fragmented lead bullet, and how much lead could be left behind in an Elk carcass, and how much of that lead could make it into an eagle's system with one beak-ful of food.

Once in the system, lead can affect the body by interfering with a number of processes, and by damaging many organs and tissues, including the heart, bones, kidneys, intestines, and nervous system.  A bird suffering from lead poisoning shows signs of weakness, organ failure, impaired movement (especially use of legs), heavy breathing, confusion, and in severe cases, seizures and death.

At the RMRP, birds showing the above symptoms have their blood drawn to test for the presence of lead.  If the results are positive, the bird is given doses of Calcium-EDTA, a compound that binds to lead in the system, and can then be passed out of the body in the urine.  The process is called chelation.  Usually, one round of chelation doesn't remove all the lead, so multiple rounds are given until blood levels are back to a reasonable value.  While the bird is undergoing chelation, supportive care is given to keep the bird nourished, hydrated, safe, and comfortable.  Unfortunately, lead poisoning can have chronic effects, and in some cases the bird never regains its full health.

Golden Eagle at the RMRP
What You Can Do:
The two most significant ways raptors ingest lead are through lead bullets used for hunting (explained above), and lead weights used for fishing:  lead weights often fall off fishing lines, or are left on discarded line.  The sinkers then fall to the bottom of the stream or pond, where they are accidentally ingested by ducks and other bottom-feeding waterfowl, or by waterfowl looking for stones for their gizzards.  The waterfowl then get sick and die, and are scavenged by raptors, or they are killed by a raptor while ill.  Either way, the lead eventually makes its way into the raptor.

As a hunter, and depending on your location in the world and within the United States, you can consider not using lead bullets.  Copper and steel alternatives are available, and while copper is a little more expensive than lead, it doesn't have the potential side effect of killing more animals than you intended.  If the higher price is the only deterrent in your situation, please think about the money saved by using a lead bullet instead of a copper bullet, then think about the value of the lives lost by ingesting that same lead bullet--perhaps the more expensive bullets will be worth it.  More information on non-lead bullets here.

Fishermen, you can save lives by not using lead sinkers.  Non-lead alternatives are widely available.  You won't just be saving raptors, you'll be saving ducks and loons and all manner of other water birds.  More information here.

The Good News:
Sub-adult Bald Eagle at the RMRP
The good news is that, while lead bullets and lead sinkers accidentally claim thousands of lives each year, awareness is growing.  As a result, alternatives to lead shot, bullets and tackle are becoming available, and legislation regarding the issues are being brought to the table.  One way to help is to spread the information as much as possible, and to take action on the information when possible.  Every action you take can save lives.

We've admitted three lead-positive eagles with already this year, and it's only February!  Please help us save these birds and all the other 250+ raptors we admit each year by donating here.

Want more science?  Here's is a literature review on the impacts of lead on the environment produced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Interested in lead-related legislation?  Check out this site.

Don't forget to follow the RMRP on Facebook and Twitter.  Also, check out our official website.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy/Sad Story

I have uplifting news and I have sad news.

The sad news first:
Earlier this week the Humans admitted a critically injured Red-Tailed Hawk.  The bird had been rescued in Berthoud after being hit by a car.  Unfortunately, its injuries were too severe, and the bird died the same afternoon it was admitted to the RMRP.

The uplifting news:
Whenever a bird is released from the RMRP, the Humans band one leg with a numbered US Fish and Wildlife Service band.  That way, if anyone ever comes across the bird again, the Humans can look up the band number and find out the bird's history.
Red-Tailed Hawk with a banded leg
The Red-Tailed Hawk that died was already banded.  Given the activity of the RMRP in the area, odds were good that it was one of our bands.  Sure enough, our Medical Director looked back in the records...and looked back further...and a little bit further...and found the history of this bird in our own facility's records.

The hawk had originally been admitted in late 2007 with head trauma, probably from another car strike, and was released in 2008 as a fully healthy bird.  When admitted in 2007, the bird was already an adult.

Why do I think this news is so good?

Because it means the RMRP took in an injured raptor, gave it everything it needed to heal up, and sent it back out to the wild for a Second Chance at Freedom.

Because the already-adult hawk lived another five full years instead of dying that day in 2007.

Because during those five years, the hawk was able to live a wild existence, rich with hunting and soaring and raising nests of new Red-Tailed Hawks each spring.

And I don't know about you, but I think that is something beautiful, something special, and something worth being happy about.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Welcome back!

Really, I'm welcoming myself back.

As you may have noticed, I haven't been posting for the past month!  It's not that there's been nothing to report, but rather than I was taking a well-earned vacation from being an educator.  For one month I took a break from school visits, tours, blogging, and tweeting (still plenty of hooting, though).  I watched the Humans celebrate the holidays with funny hats and lots of food.  I saw fireworks over the city usher in the new year.  I saw the final bird for 2012 be carried through the doors, and the first bird of 2013.  I saw volunteers travel away from the RMRP to visit their other family and friends, and I saw them come back, eager again to brave the cold, early mornings, and long, frigid days for the sake of us birds.

Now the weather is warmer, my vacation is over, and I'm ready again to regale you with tales of the RMRP. First off, a summary of the holidays:

Our final number of admissions for 2012 was 265 birds.  Not the most ever, but certainly a high caseload, and a particularly challenging range of species and injuries.  More details and stats on the 2012 cases (species composition, injuries breakdown, release rate, etc) coming sometime in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

Bald eagle with lead poisoning and a wing injury
The first admission for 2012 was a Bald Eagle, and the last admission was a Northern Harrier.  For 2013, the first admission was, again, a Bald Eagle.  He's probably a fourth year male bird, suffering from lead poisoning, an eye injury, and a wing droop.  The Humans treat lead poisoning with chelation, a process which uses Calcium-EDTA to draw the lead out of the bloodstream.  He's finished with his first round of chelation, is taking a break for a few days to allow remaining lead to come out of the woodwork, so to speak, and he'll move on to a second round soon.  Lead poisoning often comes with neurological side effects, which could be causing the wing droop, so hopefully that will resolve as the lead is cleared out of his system.

If you remember, January 2012 had us taking care of four sick and injured Bald Eagles at one time, a scenario the Humans hope to not repeat this January.  Here's hoping these amazing creatures stay happy and healthy in the wild, and don't have to visit the RMRP for care.

Weighing the Merlin on a cold day - see her breath as she vocalizes? 
The cold temperatures over the past few weeks proved very challenging for birds and Humans alike.  In cold weather like that, Humans have to think about a wide range of care-related issues that aren't usually so critical.  Can we avoid disturbing the bird, so the bird can conserve its heat and energy?  Is the bird's food going to freeze before it has a chance to eat?  Can we clean with water today, or will it instantly freeze and create hazards for birds and volunteers?  Are the little birds with high metabolisms maintaining their weight in these cold temps?  Fortunately, the Humans at the RMRP have plenty of experience with conditions like these, and the birds were extremely well cared for, as usual.  As for the Humans themselves, they dealt with the cold with many layers of thermals and Carhartts, hand warmers, insulated boots, hot water bottles, and good attitudes despite the frigidity of their work.

At last, here we are, experiencing some warmer temps and sunny days as a reward for the past few weeks.  The warm weather has provided an opportunity to deep clean the cages, use the hoses again instead of just buckets, and de-ice the pathways and parking lots.  In the past couple of weeks, the Humans have admitted the Bald Eagle mentioned above, a Cooper's Hawk, and an American Kestrel.  In exchange, they've released a female Merlin that recovered from a broken wing, a very handsome male Great Horned Owl that came in emaciated, and a Red-Tailed Hawk that was admitted with a skull fracture and massive head trauma.

That last case, the Red-Tailed Hawk, is truly amazing.  You may remember her from this picture:
Red-Tailed Hawk with skull fracture and damaged eye
The head trauma rendered her right eye useless and problematic.  After prey-testing her to be sure she could hunt with just one good eye, she was brought to the Vet Teaching Hospital to have her eye removed.  She recovered well from the surgery, and went back to hunting live prey like she still had two good eyes.  Seriously, that bird was a killing machine, and she often tried to use her skills on the Humans taking care of her.  She was released last week, and, true to form, she spun around and tried to attack her releaser one last time before flying away to go kill more appropriately-sized prey.

One-eyed Red-Tailed Hawk after release! 
Everything else at the RMRP is tripping along nicely.  As always this time of year, the Humans are busy, busy, busy planning and preparing for the annual Gala and Auction event.  Auction items are coming in daily, so be sure to come to the event to snag the best of it!  Details on our website here, including information on Early Bird tickets, which are only available for a few more days.

I'll be writing again soon to post more pictures of birds and other goings-on, so be sure to check back soon! Also, I'll be creating a new page on this blog with profiles of all us Educational Ambassadors for the RMRP, so stay tuned for those as well.