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Study finds widespread lead poisoning in North American eagles


A new national study found widespread lead poisoning in North American bald and golden eagles.

About 50 percent of the birds sampled were repeatedly exposed to lead.

That number is even higher in northern Wisconsin, where nearly 90 percent of eagles have some level of lead toxicity.

Lead is toxic and often fatal in birds, but the study found it’s relatively common.

That’s slowing the population growth rate for bald and golden eagles across the country.

“Why do we want to do that to our national symbol?” says Mark Naniot, the director of rehabilitation at Wild Instincts in Rhinelander.

He says when eagles come into Wild Instincts, it’s rare for them not to have some level of lead exposure.

“One year we tested every single eagle that came in, which was 48 that year,” Naniot says. “Out of that 48, 90 percent had lead.”

The lead comes from hunting and fishing, which frequently use lead ammo or tackle.

When eagles later ingest the lead by eating animals killed with lead ammo, they can get really sick. The lead affects their kidneys, liver and central nervous system.

Eagles aren’t the only birds affected. Loons, swans and even smaller birds like chickadees get lead poisoning.

“We currently have a swan that had ingested about 18 pellets that we could count in its stomach from picking up bugs and tubers in the mud,” Naniot says. “We’ve been chelating that one now for over three months.”

He says the best way to protect wildlife from lead poisoning is to steer clear from lead tools when hunting and fishing.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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