The Eagle Has Landed

Bald Eagle with head down in a tree
Illustration by Curt Merlo

THE BALD EAGLE was sitting on the side of the road in Brown County. It could barely stand, its head and shoulders slumped. The talons clenched tightly. Rescuers initially assumed it had been hit by a car and was stunned, so they shifted the bird to a cardboard box and transported it to a nearby rehab center in Nashville. The bird offered no resistance. Dehydrated, it had clearly been on the road for hours, possibly all night. When veterinarians drew its blood, they realized the problem wasn’t a car at all, but a scourge that’s threatening a bald eagle population that was finally recovering in Indiana: lead poisoning.

Kathleen Hershey, president of Utopia Wildlife Rehabilitators in Hope, Indiana, has seen a lot of this lately. Many American bald eagles now have some level of the neurotoxin in them, she says. Though she hasn’t worked with this particular bird, she knows the telltale signs: The eagle acts lethargic and confused. Even if the animal isn’t killed by the poison in its blood, lead presents other dangers. “If a bird is ill, it can’t fly fast enough to hunt anything but roadkill,” she says. “This is how lead poisoning can lead to eagles being hit by cars and go overlooked.”

Because many of the eagles the Indiana Department of Natural Resources recovers from roadways are already dead, they don’t typically test them for lead poisoning. They don’t conduct postmortems either, since the prevailing belief is that the population is doing fine. After all, the birds’ numbers have swelled in recent decades. In 1900, no bald eagles were nesting anywhere in Indiana. A rigorous reintroduction program in the 1980s brought 73 young eagles here. The most recent tally has jumped to 760.

But wildlife experts insist the American bald eagle’s improved numbers here have obscured the pervasiveness of lead poisoning that now threatens them. While there are no firm numbers on how many of Indiana’s eagles suffer from the condition, they say it’s a significant percentage. “People are seeing the eagles more, so they assume they’re OK,” says Laura Edmunds, cofounder of the Indiana Raptor Center. “They’re not.” Ironically, the eagles’ numbers may actually be exacerbating the problem. As the population expands and they move away from rivers and lakes, they’re looking to other food sources, like the gut piles hunters leave behind. Deer innards riddled with lead ammunition are one culprit of the lead. Eagles, who scavenge as much as they hunt, ingest the metal. Many hunters know the risks of lead ammunition and will pay more for steel bullets. But some do not. Lead ammunition is cheaper and considered more accurate. The trouble is, the accuracy of the bullets is due to their fragmentation into microscopic pieces—which end up in the stomachs of birds.

In recent years, a longstanding ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle on all Fish and Wildlife Service refuges was met with condemnation from the National Rifle Association. The ban was repealed by Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, in 2017.

Scientists insist that no amount of lead in the body is safe. In eagles, it builds up over time and destroys their red blood cells’ ability to deliver oxygen to their brain and organs. Eventually, the birds can’t move or feed themselves.

Rehabilitators can sometimes save the eagles by treating their blood with a chemical called EDTA, but it’s intensive work. “For 50 percent of the birds we get, we have to dilute the blood sample just to get a read,” Edmunds says. “That’s how high their level of lead poisoning is.”

According to Allisyn Marie Gillet, an ornithologist for the Indiana DNR, the lead found in the birds comes from multiple sources. “Lead is accumulative over time,” she says. “So it’s very hard to track where it’s coming from, like carbon emissions.” An eagle could have ingested a fish that swallowed a lead fishing tackle. Later, that same bird may have consumed part of a rabbit that had been shot.

In the end, the eagle found on the roadside in Brown County died. Like others Edmunds has seen, his organs just gave out. “It’s heartbreaking when you think of how hard we had to fight to get rid of DDT, and how hard we worked to bring eagles back to Indiana,” she says. “It’s a triumph to help them. But you know that same eagle can go out and get a belly full of lead tomorrow. It’s something you really have to decide you’re going to commit to.”