The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 10, 2013

Aura soars again

Golden eagle tests her wings on release after rehab for lead poisoning

By Cody Neff
Register-Herald Reporter

— Aura is finally free to go out and do what she loves without people bothering her all the time. She can spread her wings and fly free. She’ll have the chance to enjoy nature. She might do some hunting. She doesn’t use guns. She’ll just go in for the kill and finish off her target with her bare hands.

Actually, she’ll use her bare talons. Aura is a golden eagle that was released from Three Rivers Avian Center (TRAC) in Summers County Saturday. Aura came to the center after a Division of Natural Resources officer found out she had flying troubles.

When the executive director and other staff ran some tests, she said they found out that Aura should have been dead from lead poisoning.

“She came in at 58.6 on a test that only goes up to 62,” Wendy Perrone said. “We thought we were going to lose her several times. It gradually leeches out of the body, so suddenly she would spike with a lead level and we would have to treat her again. That’s why it took so long to get her back to health.

“You could see the difference when she wasn’t feeling well. She would stop hitting her perches properly and she’d be flying really heavy.

“She was flying heavy today, but that’s because she ate too much,” Perrone added with a laugh. “She’s not going to have to do any work for a living for a week.”

Aura came to TRAC bin March and needed almost constant care, Perrone said.

“The first month that she was here, the lead was so bad that she couldn’t even raise her head,” she said. “There was a lot of hands-on time during that time to pull her through from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.”

Perrone says lead poisoning, even lead poisoning this bad, is more common than you think.

“Particularly when you get to the larger raptors, you’re going to see more of it,” she said. “There’s a golden eagle study that’s been going on and it’s in its seventh or eighth year and what they’re doing is trapping golden eagles and putting satellite transmitters on them, banding them, and tracking where they go and what they do.

“In the process of doing that they also take a blood sample. They have never had a golden eagle come back completely clean. If they see a reading of 10 units or less, they consider that about average. They’re all flying drunk, for lack of a better term. One of the things that happens with lead is that your body treats it like calcium and stores it in the bones and in the large organs, especially when you have something as heavily poisoned as she was.”

Perrone says the study has given a good idea about where all of this lead might be coming from.

“There’s actually some really good evidence that it’s coming particularly from hunting season when people are using lead ammunition,” she said. “There’s a definite spike in lead poisoning cases during hunting season. You can see it in all of the data to the point that California recently passed a law that banned all lead ammunition in the state. We have a good bit of information on our website about the issue with lead and why it’s a problem. Any amount of lead might not make you feel really bad but you’re just not functioning at 100 percent.

“Whenever a lead bullet hits a body, most people look for it to have exited the body. Hunters will cut out the hole where the lead bullet was. What’s showing up is when a bullet hits the body, it immediately starts to shatter and scatters through the whole length of the body in tiny, tiny bits. Some of it’s so small that you’d never see it if you just cut it open and looked, but if you put it under an X-ray, then it would show up bright and shining.

“There’s a video on our website of a guy shooting a wild boar and he’s a little less than a quarter-of-a-mile away from it. The bullet hits the boar in the back of the neck and he has the veterinarian who’s with him use a portable X-ray machine to take a picture of the boar. It shows you right then that, even though the bullet’s gone, the fragments from the lead shot were all the way through the head and all the way down below the rib cage.”

One of the ways the lead from the bullets is getting into these eagles is a side effect of hunters cutting out the part that was hit with a lead bullet and throwing it on the ground, Perrone says.

“They can also get it if someone shoots a buck and, say they only want the antlers, leaves the body for scavengers; then the scavengers get the lead in their system from that,” she said. “It’s a real problem and we’re asking everyone to please switch to nonlead ammunition. They’ve come a very long way in how they develop it. It’s no longer messing up the rifles and it shoots straight.

“The CDC has also released a statement saying that no pregnant woman should ever eat anything that’s been shot with lead shot. You can get your blood tested at the health department to see how much lead is in it. You can see with this situation here that it can be treated.”

Perrone says they aren’t asking hunters to stop hunting. She says she likes deer meat herself. They just want people to switch to the safer ammo for the safety of the animals and the safety of the people who eat what they kill.

Golden eagles are also avid hunters themselves, Perrone says.

“Golden eagles have been in West Virginia as far back as even oral histories are concerned,” she said. “They’re called ‘The Mountain Eagle.’ They don’t go after fish like the bald eagle does. They might go after some water fowl.

“They tend to go after land-based animals. They’ll go after turkey, bobcats, foxes, rabbits, and snakes of all kinds. A full-grown eagle like Aura is perfectly capable of capturing and killing a full-grown white-tail deer.”

Although she said a bond was formed between the two, Perrone’s glad to see Aura go.

“When you’re doing rehabilitation like this, the whole point is to get them out,” she said. “The joy of knowing that she will stretch those wings out and feel the free air is too cool. That’s what you live for. It was not hard. It was more like dancing in the streets.”

For more information about Three Rivers Avian Center or nonlead hunting, visit www.tracwv.org.

— E-mail: cneff@register-herald.com