Treating eagles and other birds with lead poisoning is an all too common occurrence at the Raptor Education Group, Inc. in Antigo.
“Often the bird that comes in with lead poisoning is suffering from multi-organ failure. They’re very thin. They’re on the ground. They’re really lethargic,” said REGI founder and Executive Director Marge Gibson.
Gibson said at least one-fourth of the eagles she treats have lead poisoning and she knows she’ll see an increase of the sick birds after the gun deer season.
“Hunters gut the deer and leave the gut piles there, which is what they’re supposed to do of course, but if you used lead ammunition it fragments and it is throughout the deer’s body,” said Gibson.
The eagles and other animals will then pick through those remains and end up eating the lead fragments.
“Of course, they can’t see it, they can’t taste it. Lead is toxic,” said Gibson. “So when we have a new alternative, we really need to give it some thought and to use that.”
Gibson and other animal rehabilitators are urging hunters to switch out their lead ammo for alternatives like copper.
“We started bringing in non-toxic ammo in rifle loads probably ten years ago,” said Mel’s Trading Post owner Mitch Mode.
Mode has seen an increase of hunters switching to copper bullets over the years, though the change certainly hasn’t been overnight.
“If we brought in three-dozen boxes we might sell four or five. We lost money on it every year. We stayed with it. The demand has increased slowly but steadily,” said Mode.
One thing that held some hunters back was the price disparity.
Copper bullet used to cost much more than lead bullets, but Mode says that gap is closing as they grow more popular.
Mode himself made the switch a couple years ago for performance and health reasons.
“Ballistically, a copper bullet is really, really good. It holds together. It does everything well,” said Mode. “Secondly, I talk to a lot of people who are a lot smarter than I am in that business. They’re all making a very convincing case that small fragments of lead can spread through a wound channel and into an animal, into the stuff you eat.”
Gibson hopes more hunters will follow suit and make the switch, so she gets to see fewer sick eagles come through her doors.
And if you do see a sick eagle, Gibson says you should call a wildlife rehabilitator.
“It’s not going to recover in the wild by itself. It can’t,” said Gibson.
If you see a sick eagle, you can call REGI at (715) 623-4015.