Sick Eagle Soon to Soar Again

An American Bald Eagle on the verge of death after ingesting lead gunshot will soon be released back into the wild thanks to the helping hands of veterinarian Dr. Belinda Burwell and the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Clarke County, Virginia. But even though this eagle represents a success story in the fight against lead poisoning in wildlife, many lead poisoned birds of prey that aren’t discovered die each year.

Not only can the problem can be easily avoided, it also needlessly affects humans as well.

A sick eagle was finally able to fly to a perch after three weeks of treatment for lead poisoning - photo courtesy Blue Ridge Wildlife Center

“Some birds of prey, such eagles and hawks, will scavenge on dead deer whenever they can find them,” explained Dr. Belinda Burwell, director of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center near Boyce, Virginia. “Deer shot with high velocity lead ammunition can have hundreds of small fragments of the shattered lead bullet in their flesh.  When they eat this lead, the acid in their stomachs dissolves the lead which is absorbed into their bloodstream.  From the bloodstream, the lead in absorbed into nerves and bone and other organs.  Most of the symptoms we see are due to the damage that the lead does to the nervous system and digestive tract.”

Burwell said that although collateral damage to animals that consume the lead through the food chain, as well as from ingested lead fragments, can be easily avoided by substituting copper ammunition and non-fragmenting bullets, hunting lobbyists have resisted government regulation.

“I would like to spread the word about the danger to animals and people who eat meat from animals that have been shot with lead ammunition,” said Burwell.

Burwell said that there are no reliable estimates of how many animals or people are affected by ammunition-induced lead poisoning, but her clinic treats several lead poisoned animals each year. Unfortunately, not all of the animals can be saved.

“I don’t know if anyone has a credible estimate of how many birds are poisoned,” Burwell said. “Of course many die hidden in the wild and are never found.   We have treated six birds so far this year.  One died.  This number is less than we used to see and we hope is due to the fact that many large land owners in this area no longer allow the use of ammunition containing lead on their land.”

The eagle currently under Burwell’s care was found by a resident of Hopewell, Virginia southeast of Richmond.  Burwell said that after observing the eagle on the ground unable to fly, the Hopewell resident contacted the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who in turn contacted a local wildlife rehabilitation organization called Area Rehabbers Klub (ARK).

ARK Wildlife rehabilitators Lin Fox and Guy Raymer quickly responded to the eagle distress call. Since two other eagles had been recently shot in the same areas – a Federal crime – Fox and Raymer immediately transported the bird to Dr. A. J. Ereio at VetXpress in Colonial Heights, Virginia. After an initial examination, Ereio determined that although the bird had not been shot, it was very ill and referred the eagle to the BRWC.

Lin Fox and her son transported the eagle on the three hour trip from Hopewell to Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.

When the bird arrived at BRWC Burwell observed that it was in a weakened state and was demonstrating neurologic problems, telltale indicators of lead poisoning. Fortunately – or in a way unfortunately – BRWC sees so many lead poisoned animals that it has all of the necessary equipment on site to diagnose the condition.

Burwell immediately ordered blood work in to confirm her suspicions.

“We see so much lead poisoning in hawks and eagles that we have a lead testing machine at our center so we can get results within minutes rather than waiting three to four days for testing by an outside lab,” Burwell said. “Testing showed that this eagle had a high level of lead in her blood.  She also had small metallic objects in her stomach which were most likely the source of the lead that been absorbed into her body.”

Once the lead poisoning was confirmed, Burwell ordered that the bird be treated with drugs known as “chelators”.

Chelators bind with the lead and help the body excrete it.

“Chelator treatment sometimes lasts for three to four weeks,” Burwell explained.

But lead poisoning treatment isn’t always limited to drugs. Sometimes animals also need to have lead fragments removed from their stomachs. Supportive care is almost always necessary because the sick birds usually cannot eat, drink, or walk without falling.

“The eagle that we are caring for right now needed two weeks of treatment with chelators, and five days of tube feeding,” Burwell said. “Once treatment has been completed, it then can take weeks for their nervous system to recover.”

Burwell said that the eagle currently under her care was finally able to fly to a perch after three weeks of intensive treatment. After a few more days of continued care and support Burwell said that she plans to release the bird back into the wild sometime next week.

But as tragic as it may be that such a majestic bird could be brought from the sky by simply eating a lead-infected meal, the greater tragedy may be how easily the problem could be eliminated, but isn’t, thanks to lobbying efforts in Washington.

Medical team prepares to examine stomach of sick eagle for lead pellets - photo courtesy Blue Ridge Wildlife Center

According to Burwell, the consumption of lead shot by wildlife was first identified as a threat to wild waterfowl populations in the 1960’s and led to a US Fish and Wildlife Service ban on the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting in 1991.

The lead ban occurred despite many of years of heated debate by hunting groups who were strongly opposed to the ban.

But Burwell said that the impacts of lead shot for hunting other species – especially deer, elk, and other large mammals – was not identified as a significant threat to wildlife until lead poisoning was discovered as the major obstacle to the recovery of California condor population. The condor link prompted a ban on the use of all lead ammunition in southern California’s condor habitat.

Arizona has also instituted a voluntary ban on all lead ammunition.

“Lead ammo has been banned for use in hunting over water for years but no one has yet been able to ban the use of lead over land due to opposition by hunting groups and the NRA,” Burwell said. “The Center for Biological Diversity and over 100 other wildlife groups have petitioned the EPA to ban the use of lead as a component in ammunition because it is a toxic substance. The EPA is supposed to enforce the Toxic Substances Control Act which was designed to prevent the release of toxic substances into the environment.”

But even though low levels of lead has long been known to cause serious health impacts in humans, Burwell says Virginia continues to resist regulating lead shot.

“After research studies in 2008 proved that fragments of lead shot in game are also dangerous to people who eat this meat, many state hunting and fishing departments put warnings against using certain types of lead ammunition on their hunting websites,” Burwell said. “The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has not done this, but they should.”

“I’m shocked these legislators care so little about the health of Americans that they would want to allow toxic lead to be consumed by people who are unaware of the danger,” Burwell said.

Burwell said that even though banning the use of lead shot has been opposed by some hunting groups, there is now a renewed effort to again tackle the issue.

“This was first done in 2010, but the EPA declined the petition as soon as the NRA voiced their strong opposition to a ban,” Burwell said. “A new petition was just filed earlier this month.”

In response to petitioning of the EPA by wildlife and environmental groups, legislators in Washington have introduced the “Sportsman’s Heritage Act” (HR 1558) which would include lead in bullets under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Burwell pointed out that the birds that she treats show more severe symptoms of lead exposure than hunters do because the birds are much smaller than a human.

“Lead is dangerous not only to wildlife but also to anyone who eats meat shot with lead ammunition,” Burwell cautioned. “A study by the CDC found that people who eat hunter killed meat have a higher level of lead in their blood than the general population. Any amount of lead in the blood can be harmful. Hunters say they are not being sickened by using lead shot. But lead absorbed into the body can cause damage to the nervous system at levels below the toxic range where there are no noticeable symptoms. Children exposed to lead do not feel sick, but will develop learning disabilities. In this debate, you will sometimes read about “normal levels of lead”, or levels that are below the toxic range. There are no ‘normal levels of lead’ in an animal’s blood. It is a toxic metal that should not be in our blood stream at all. I feel this is a very important public health issue, in addition to the threat it poses to wildlife.  Our society recognizes that lead is so toxic we removed it from paint, gasoline, and our water pipes.  We recognize that even exposure to small amounts of lead is harmful.”

“A human can eat more of lead and will have a lower blood lead than a five to ten pound bird,” Burwell said. “Also, hunters know to cut away the meat from the gunshot wound. The bird eats this toxic meat.”

Burwell said that until such time that legislation bans lead bullets, there are steps that landowners and hunters can immediately take to combat the problem.

“Hunters should switch to non-lead, non-fragmenting ammunition, such as copper bullets or bullets encased in a copper jacket,” Burwell recommends. “Or use a muzzleloader and not a rifle because muzzleloader bullets do not fragment as much.”

Burwell also asks that hunters not use high velocity lead ammunition because the bullets leave hundreds of lead fragments behind in the meat.

“Another important thing land owners can do, is if they allow hunting on their land, make sure they are using only non-fragmenting, non-lead bullets,” Burwell recommends.

The Blue Ridge Wildlife Center can treat just about any animal found in our area. So if you see a large hawk or eagle on the ground that cannot fly, do not attempt to rescue the animal yourself. Instead, Burwell asks that you immediately call the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.

“Even when these birds are sick and weak, they can still bite and can injure a person,” Burwell said

Blue Ridge Wildlife Center can be reached at 540-837-9000

For additional information on the lead ammunition debate:



  1. Oh Lordy, the liberal cause of the week, banning og lead ammo and fishing weights.

    Somewhere in between is the truth I suppose

    • I think the bigger issue is the wreckless disgarding of the animal carcus. If you’re going to hunt, have the decency to clean up after yourself.
      The hunters who discard the carcuses in the woods, or on the side of the road are LAZY and irresponsible.

  2. There are starting to be reports that sugar is a toxin as well. Big nanny government is getting bigger and bigger

  3. Sarge, must everything trigger your anti-lib, anti-good-steward-of-the-Earth-like-God-commanded-us knee jerk reactions? Both of these studies focus on things that, if you’d just step back for a second, are in the well being of us and the animals, like our national symbol there.

    Sugars in the concentrations we consume every day make the blood thicker, and pack on the pounds. Lead is a known toxin, which is why it was banned in paints nearly 40 years ago. Yes, it’s still used in ammo, but perhaps that could change?

    • Anything in over abundance is a toxin to the body. Drink too much water, throw off your electrolytes and you’re dead.

      So yes, when I start to see stories about such and such being a toxin and this is bad for you and that is bad for you, I know it’s not going to be too long before the government tries to ban it. Sugar is on the radar now, won’t be long before beef or some other food stuff is under attack by the do gooders in government.

      BTW, I’m glad the eagle recovered. I’m glad there are people like Ms Burwell in the world to help them. But stick to what you do best and I’ll decide what’s good for me and what isn’t. And I’ll decide if I want to use lead ammo or pay more for the copper loads.

      • jennifer says:

        Sarge, I believe on the biosolids thread you are advocating for the “nanny government” to get involved. I guess you are just a hunter, not a farmer.

        • Pretty cool,huh? Consider though, that my position is not the only paradox. The person that is the subject of this article receives farm subsidies for letting a few goats loose on her property. She received money to erect a fence to keep said goats out of Spout Run and I believe received money for drilling a well for the goats as well. Meanwhile, the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center is using land and facilities that have been granted a tax exemption as a charitable organization. So she is accepting subsidies on one hand while getting tax exemptions on the other.

          It would be nice if the farmers that are spreading the biosolids would quit using it voluntarily. But in the meantime, it appears to be making at least some of their neighbors sick. OTOH, when is the last time you heard about a case of lead poisoning, before this eagle was brought in from southern Va?

          As for the bullets themselves, the military looked at switching a few years back and conducted a few studies. The conclusions, without boring everyone to death, was that lead is more dense and has a much better ballistic coeffecient than copper. It retains energy over distance better, meaning it is better at putting down the object on the receiving end. Less chance of wounding an animal. Not to mention that lead is more plentiful and costs less than copper, which played into the military decision to stay with lead bullets

          • jennifer says:

            Well Sarge at least you recognize the paradox in the “we hate the government” rhetoric. As to your question about when the last time I heard of a lead poisoning case, this is not the kind of story that gets media attention normally. That does not mean it doesn’t happen. Of course, lead poisoning in people is rare now thanks to the bans of the 70’s in gas and paint. I am sure some folks were fussing about that then too.

          • Another View says:

            Lead poisoning was hardly an epidemic or a problem prior to the 70s. Indeed, lead based paint and gasoline were superior products in comparison to today’s ethanol diluted fuels.

            Lead is not evil. It too is a part of this Earth, to be used by its good stewards.

          • Oh…the lead poisoning was there, but the reporting of it, the identifying it for what it is, what not like it became in the 1970s or today.

            Being a good steward, AV, means that – if something is recognized to be harmful, it’s not used, thus eliminating or mitigating the risk of harm. There are many things that are “a part of this Earth,” but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to use them if they’re harmful. It’s got nothing to do with liberal vs. conservative; it’s common sense.

          • Right Winger says:

            “…She received money to erect a fence to keep said goats out of Spout Run and I believe received money for drilling a well for the goats as well. Meanwhile, the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center is using land and facilities that have been granted a tax exemption as a charitable organization. So she is accepting subsidies on one hand while getting tax exemptions on the other…”

            Can’t say I blame her. If the Gov’t is willing to give her the grants and tax exemptions, why not?

          • The BRWC is only asking for hunters to become knowledgeable about the dangers of lead to wildlife and to humans, and then make an informed decision whether to continue to use lead ammo. Since Sarge has decided to attack me personally and spread misinformation about my family, I must respond to his misinformed accusations. My family did put up fencing to keep cattle and horses out of Spout Run at a cost of $16,000, an expense we were not reimbursed and we will likely never recover. (BTW there are no goats on our land). We do this to protect the quality of the water not only in Spout Run, but also the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers. The BRWC is a non-profit tax exempt charity because it serves the community by rescuing injured, orphaned, and sick wildlife, protects public health, and monitors for wildlife disease and environmental toxins. The BRWC receives no tax dollars and accomplishes its mission at no cost to the community. It is supported only by private donations. In contrast, Animal Control services that rescues dogs and cats, is supported by your tax dollars.

          • No ‘attack” doctor. If it came thru that I way I apologize. As I said, I think it’s great there are people like you to do what you do.

            But the fact remains that you use a house on the Foundation (which is in a 501c) for your work. The Star reported awhile ago that you were planning on building a new $600,000 center on the property, which would seem to go against the spirit of one of the purposes of the Foundation, which is to preserve the land, as is, forever. Again, another good cause.

            I was merely pointing out that while you are advocating that government ban lead in the manufacture of bullets, your center benefits from using a house that is located within the confines of, and is owned by a tax exempt entity. Nothing more, nothing less.

            I’ll check on the goats;)

          • wilkerson says:

            Gods Speed, Dr. Burwell! You are not alone in this fight, tho Im sure it feels like that at times. We WILL find an answer!!!

  4. Lisa Hodge says:

    So the bottom line is that you don’t want to “pay more” for the safer and less toxic ammunition.
    How sad that it comes down to the almighty dollar over the health of these animals and the people around you.
    How truly sad.

    • i guess this is what brought about the demise of the indians,pilgrims, and all our ancestors. They didnt have grocery stores with health inspectors. They hunted squirrel, rabbit, and quail(which are practically extinct in this county) and other small game. Mainly with shotguns and lead filled shotshells. i guess thats why they didnt have eagles back then and we dont have quail today.

  5. Another View says:

    “. . . many lead poisoned birds of prey that aren’t discovered die each year.” Huh? If they are not discovered, how do you know if they die, and of what?

    This is nothing but anti-gun, anti-hunting, anti-meat eating vegan propaganda from a bunch of folks who don’t know what they are talking about!

    • wilkerson says:

      I’ll explain it to you,’ ANOTHER VIEW’……I work in a small, podunk, rural town rehab and release clinic. We have received 5 EAGLES in 2 years. 4 suffered from lead poisoning, 3 of which died. What are the odds of a small town, out of the way rescue getting 5 eagles?. Now, with all the eagles out there, and all the wilderness there is, and the fact that 5 were found and brought in to us, it only stands to reason that there are hundreds more NOT FOUND. Do the math!!!!

  6. Lisa Hodge says:

    My husband is a hunter and a member of the NRA. I also carry a gun and eat meat.
    I’ve seen the effects of lead poisoning in birds of prey many times and it isn’t pretty.
    You heard about this story because it is a Bald Eagle, the symbol of our fine United States of America.
    You don’t hear about the others because it doesn’t make the same kind of ‘good story’.
    Methinks it is you who needs to go and volunteer at a wildlife center and see for yourself what we DO know about.

  7. Another View says:

    The outlawing of lead ammunition is a proposal floated by the Obama administration through the EPA. It is a long time leftist goal to eliminate guns, and the elimination of ammunition is just another battle front in that war. Kind and fuzzy stories and organizations are circulating and using stories such as this one in order to accomplish these goals. This I know about.

    • wilkerson says:

      So, what you are admitting is that YOU are part of an organization using kind and fuzzy stories in order to accomplish your goals, right?

  8. Jeannette Randolph says:

    I would just like to say…that the eagle was rescused in Prince George county VA, not Hopewell. The mailing address at that location is Hopewell.

  9. Doreen Murgatroyd says:

    Lead poisoning affects children more severely than adults. It is really unpleasant and the removal of it from products shouldn’t be made into a political issue. It’s common sense.

  10. Lisa Hodge says:

    Agreed, this shouldn’t be a political issue. People should just look at the facts and do what is RIGHT and best for the people, animals and the world. The government shouldn’t have to ban it, people can see the harm it does so just voluntarily stop and use the alternative.

    • So, people have been shooting game for hundreds of years with lead bullets and shot, with virtually no problems. Yet all of a sudden we have this.

      And I guess no one opened the link I provided where people said there were no biological reasons to ban lead shot, other than certain factions hyper-ventilating.

  11. wilkerson says:

    How can anyone whine about themselves in a conversation aimed toward respecting all life forms and protecting the future?

  12. Concerned Citizen says:

    Regulation of lead products is meaningful, because Lead poisoning is more prevelent than you think. and there are many sources of lead poisoning. It can be in the water pipes of older cities. The ground and ground water at shooting ranges can be very high in lead due to the lead content of shells, the lead dust, etc….. one very good reason not to use lead ammo.

  13. There is too much regulation by the government on everything period. If lead is banned in ammo, then everyone is going to find something wrong with the various non-toxic ammunition and try to ban that. What about the mercury put in the curly q light bulbs that are suppossed to save the world. You bust one of those things you have to call in a hazmat team to clean up your house. What about all the lead in the batteries used to power the hybrid and electric cars that are going to save the world. What about the all the waste caused by disposal of these mercury filled light bulbs and batteries. I’m sorry, but we’re surrounded by toxic things. The sale of lead ammunition to hunters and shooters have provided more money for conservation and done more things for wildlife than any negative affects it has. If the area that is being hunted is considered sensitive, then fine, restrict things to non tox only in that area. There’s evidence and studies that back both sides of this story and frankly this discussion just gets old. In my opinon for the cost there is no suitable substitute for lead and I am not interested in paying a premium price for non toxic shot over somebody’s agenda to tell me what I’m suppossed to do and how I’m suppossed to live my life! How about we worry about our country’s debt instead of this petty stuff!

  14. beautiful bird!

  15. Pull up your boots sarge. Your in pretty deep on this one. hate to see you with stuff in your shoes. Don’t they make steel shot for water foul hunting? could be used else where i guess.

  16. wilkerson says:

    Heres my problem plain and simple……I have witnessed the slow, painful and agonizing death of 3 eagles in 2 years time. ALL SHOWED EXTREMELY HIGH AND DEADLY LEVELS OF LEAD!!!! We are killing our wildlife and we need to do something about it NOW! I am one of a family of hunters. I grew up depending on harvested game. The first thing you do, Sarge, is PICK OUT THE LEAD SHOT!!! And as far as my family is concerned, we will hunt with rocks if it means saving an eagle, or anyother animals being destroyed by lead bullets. It is a horrible death! This isn’t about gun laws, rights, or political belief. WE ARE KILLING EAGLES WITH LEAD!!!!! We’ve got to find an answer!!!!!!!