The Dangers of Lead to Birds, Waterfowl and Wildlife

By Lori Thomas
reporter/photographer, Potawatomi Traveling Times

 Marge holding Eagle – Marge Gibson, Director of REGItalks to the eagle to let him know everything will be okay.

Clarence Daniels, Forst County Potawatomi member, had been coming back from Wausau in the late afternoon of December 22, 2008. As he drove his pickup truck down the twist and turns of Highway 55 from Pickerel, he noticed something moving on the road just ahead of him.

He pulled off to the side of the road near the restaurant, Hills Still, and noticed the movement was an eagle trying to pick up flight, but with no success. As the eagle struggled to get across the road, a large semi drove past. Daniels knew that if the semi had come any sooner, the eagle wouldn’t have made it across.

Daniels watched as the eagle struggled to walk, almost as if he were injured. He knew that he needed to help in whatever way he could, but he had no idea how. 

He started to follow the eagle as it tried to make its way back into the deepness of the snow, away from the cars and trucks that zipped back and forth along the highway. Of course, if the eagle weren’t injured, Daniels thought, he’d take flight and hurry away from all that was unfamiliar back to his home. But this poor eagle couldn’t even fly. Daniels didn’t have a plan as to how to get this eagle out of harm’s way; all he knew was that he needed to get him somewhere safe, away from the traffic on Highway 55.

As he approached the eagle, he knew that it would put up some type of defense to him; and that, the eagle did. Daniels tried to grab him the first time and the eagle snipped at his arm, leaving a mark. Daniels wasn’t giving up. He knew eventually the eagle would forgive him for trying to take him away from his familiar surroundings. As he grabbed him, the bird became still, and Daniels cradled the eagle as if he was a newborn baby.

 This X-ray shows numerous amounts of pellets the eagle swallowed.
He brought him back to his truck where he wrapped him up in a blanket. Daniels decided to call the Forest County Potawatomi Security office and speak with the director, Sam Alloway. Possibly Alloway would be able to assist him in what he should do with the hurt eagle. As Daniels placed the eagle in his truck, he talked to the eagle, telling him he would be ok and that he would get him some help.

He drove his pickup truck towards Crandon and started making phone calls. Handling an eagle, even a sick one with bad intentions, is not an easy process, but the eagle sat in the passenger side, not once trying to escape. Eagles have a sense about them when they know they are in good hands.

Once Daniels and the eagle arrived at the security office, he brought the eagle inside as Alloway continued to make phone calls hoping he could find someone that could truly help the eagle. Alloway made contact with a woman named Marge Gibson, founder and director of Raptor Education Group, Inc. located in Antigo, Wis.

Gibson and a member of her staff came into the FCP security office. Without any hesitation she took one look at the eagle and said, “He looks like he is suffering from lead poisoning.” She quickly did an examination of the bird as to make sure nothing else could have been wrong with him. She could tell that he was a little underweight for a male bird of his size and would soon find the answers of what truly was wrong with him once she could take him to the sanctuary. They took blood tests and did everything that humans would have when they are taken to the emergency room, including IVs and X-rays.

Gibson thanked Daniels and provided Alloway with information on how to keep in contact with her.

The following day, Alloway stopped at my office and filled me in on how the eagle was doing. He was definitely suffering from lead poison, something that Gibson said would have killed him if Daniels did not find and rescue him the previous day. “He would have never survived and become healthy again if he weren’t found,” stated Gibson.

Later that day, I decided to send Gibson an e-mail. I was curious, as well as Daniels and Alloway, to find out what would happen to the eagle from Highway 55.

Gibson replied back to me with some devastating news about our eagle. He was definitely suffering from lead poisoning, and for an adult bald eagle weighing in at 5.1 pounds, which is less than half of what he should weigh, was devastating. Imagine a 120-pound human; it would be like weighing only half of that, which is not healthy.

In the e-mail reply from Gibson, she stated, “His blood lead was very high and he is currently under treatment for lead poisoning. The eagle will receive the same treatment that human patients get when suffering from lead poison. The shots he will receive twice a day are of Calcium Versenate. This chelates the lead from the bird’s blood. Since lead is stored in the bone of the bird, we will be giving him several rounds of treatment before the lead clears from the bone and blood.

He is very anemic with a hematocrit of 30 percent. A normal level for a bald eagle is about 48 percent. The good news is his total protein is within normal range. That is a good indication that he will recover and be able to be released back into the wild again. He would have to undergo rehabilitation as in exercise reconditioning once the lead poison is cured. Due to starvation, the bird has very little flight muscles and will have to develop those in our large flight building before being released,” stated Gibson.

It was good news to hear that the eagle would survive, but I was very curious to find out how and why the eagle had lead poisoning. After all, how can an eagle or any type of bird even get sick from lead poisoning?

After receiving Gibson’s e-mail, I questioned her in regards to the how and why of lead poisoning with birds and her response was truly devastating. “Lead poisoning is a very serious condition, and it is totally human caused. It is a hard thing because adult birds that have survived any problems of youth turn out to be experienced hunters. The birds become poisoned while eating off a carcass or a gut pile left in the woods by hunters. Eagles and other lake birds also ingest lead fishing sinkers.”

“Lead has been banned from the paint we use in our homes since 1974. We no longer have lead in our gasoline. People get frantic when toys made in China have minute levels of lead in the paint; and yet we use it often in things such as fishing tackle and ammunition.” Gibson further stated, “There are alternatives but the hunting lobby is strong and I am convinced they seem to want to keep sportsmen in the dark about the problems involved.”

As Gibson was sending this e-mail, she commented on how very upset and sad she was at the loss of another eagle there earlier that morning - an eagle being treated for lead poisoning. The eagle that had died was a beautiful female that nested for over 15 years on the same lake. There were residents that lived on the lake that had many photos of her throughout the seasons. Gibson said her lead levels were so high; they did not register on the machine. “I have 15 eagles here at REGI at this time. Several of them are victims of lead poisoning. Most will recover, but it takes time and is a difficult process for them and also for us. Each bird is an individual. I am so close to each one, I feel I lose a bit of my heart every time.” Gibson went on to talk about lead poison and how serious it is. “Lead is so toxic that a piece the size of a grain of sand can poison a human child. You can imagine what a lead sinker or lead bullet fragment does to an eagle.”

Gibson had X-rays taken of the eagle and found he was actually shot; two pellets were in his left chest cavity.

During my visit to the facility after the holidays, our eagle seemed to have been doing a little better as he was out in the flight building managing to take wind a few times before resting with the other eagles. “He’s still being tube fed,” Gibson stated. “He was so sick when we first brought him in that I spent the entire night holding him – he had seizures on and off throughout the night.”

We took a look at the X-rays of our eagle along with other birds that have been in or are still in the facility. One X-ray was of a loon that had a full sinker in its stomach; another X-ray of an eagle showed 64 pellets. This eagle did not survive.

Many of these birds that are let back into the wild once they are healthy, only to return back to her center, a majority of the time with lead poison. Gibson and her husband have many types of birds at her sanctuary from barn owls, to chickadees, vultures to red-tailed hawks. All are there for the care and nurturing to be able to get back into the wild. There are others that are unable to return to their natural environment due to some sort of illness or injury that prevents them from surviving on their own. These birds then are considered foster parents to the birds that are brought in for care.

  Shown above is a sinker that one of the birds had swallowed.
Gibson has been getting calls regarding sick trumpeter swans, which are on the endangered species list. Many swans along with other waterfowl are obtaining food where they weren’t able to before, which results in lead poison from eating lead sinkers in shallow wetland. Elizabeth Rogers, Ph.D., Environmental Program, Director/Ecologist of the Forest County Potawatomi Natural Resources Department stated, “Waterfowl can ingest lead pellets when they are dabbling for food in the muck in the bottom of a shallow wetland. This is particularly true for geese and dabbling ducks (like scaup and ring-necked ducks) and loons are more apt to get lead from ingesting fishing gear although they may also deliberately pick up what they perceive to be gravel for an aid in digestion.”

The medication Calcium Versenate (Ca EDTA) that Gibson gives in the form of shots to these birds is quite expensive.

The cost for 30 ccs of Ca EDTA is $600. The swans use about three ccs per day and eagles two ccs per day for weeks at a time.

“The medical costs for x-rays and other medication are similar to what it is for humans. The eagle that was found by Daniels has about $1700 worth of medical costs at this point and that includes nothing for care and food.”

Downstairs from her and her husband’s home is where she houses the seriously ill birds that need intensive care. As Gibson tube-fed two trumpeter swans, it was unimaginable to the human eye how much work it takes to get these birds back to feeling normal, and getting the lead to leave their system. One swan that was there was unable to walk; this bird had been brought in from Hudson, Wis., just a day or two before my visit and put up a huge fuss as Gibson and her husband managed to get the tube down her neck to feed her – the only way she was going to get food into her system as the swan was too weak to eat on her own and would be for quite some time. The food they tube-feed to the birds is a mixture of Gerber's baby cereal and a liquid food used for humans that are on feeding tubes. For eagles, they use the baby food but it is the meat variety; the kind you would buy at the grocery store such as baby food like beef, meat and veal (no ham). The liquid food is easy for the very sick birds to digest. It is the same as if humans were very ill and starving in the hospital. You would not be able to digest a steak; neither can birds. “They are very much like us,” Gibson stated, “our brothers in the purest sense of the word.”

There are ways to tell if you notice a bird that has been poisoned with lead. If you see a bird that has lead poisoning, you will see messy green droppings in the area. This type of mess was evident with the swan as the lower half of its white downing was covered with a dark green mess. The volunteers along with Gibson and her husband wash blankets around the clock to keep the birds’ bedding clean. This is a continuous process day in and day out of keeping their bedding clean, but the birds would continue to have these type of messy green droppings until the lead was released out of their system.

The only way to get the lead out of them is the Ca EDTA shots. They cannot get it out by themselves. The time depends on how bad of a case they have. Some take months and can take over a year to get them back into good enough shape to take their place back in the wild.

This visit to REGI helped to write this story and get the word out about the hazardous effects of lead in bullets, pellets and sinkers. Rogers stated, “It appears that the only real solution will be to stop using lead bullets and lead fishing sinkers. With the evidence mounting, there will probably be pressure for some legislation.”

Gibson stated, “The funding is all private as we are a non-profit organization. We get no state or federal funds, which is odd because state and federal law protect all of the birds we care for. Many of the birds we do care for are endangered.” Gibson continued by stating, “Birds cannot talk and do not vote so they do not get money from the politicians. I have to say that upsets me because this is their land, too. They were here in the beginning and now seem to have few rights. 501 (c) (2) non-profits are tax deductible. In other words, people get to take anything they donate off of their taxes.”

We are fortunate when fish are donated to us to be used as food for the eagles. The Sokoagon Chippewa donated a truckload of bullheads this past June. That was super!“ Gibson continued, “Often, people think they cannot do anything to help; but even volunteers to help in building repairs, painting or even yard work and laundry is so valuable to us and allows us to give our time to the birds directly.”

“1991 was a nationwide ban on lead shot for hunting waterfowl. There is currently no nationwide ban on lead shot for upland game, or lead bullets, or lead sinkers.” Rogers continued by stating, “Given the mounting evidence of effects, there probably should be. Other alloys cost more - but if lead ammunition were no longer available, people would no longer notice the price difference. And the lead sinkers for fishing gear really ought to be replaced with tungsten or bismuth. Such products do exist already.”

It is hard to try and understand the ways of the world, and why life is the way it is. We all know that littering causes great harm to the environment, yet we still choose to throw that can of soda or fast food garbage out the window while riding down the highway. And now, with the growing number of birds and wildlife that are being affected by the harm of lead, do you really think it is enough to start doing something about it? We all are aware of the harm of lead to humans. Why do we ignore the dangers when it comes to the animals and birds that roam in their own natural surroundings?

No one person could know the dangers that lead bullets and lead sinkers do to these birds, except for those that are out there trying to make a difference in getting this information clear across the board or those that deal with the birds on a day-to-day basis such as Gibson and her team of volunteers at REGI. We care for our Mother Earth and the harm we as humans cause to her show in outcomes such as these. We need to start thinking about those other beings that are living upon the earth, out in nature that help our circle of life continue.

As Alloway had come to my office to share information with me the day after the eagle was rescued, I said to him, “I’d like to think there is a reason why Daniels found this eagle.” The more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me; the eagle came to us with a serious message to address about the dangers of lead to our birds and waterfowl.

 The green droppings that determine if a bird has lead poisoning are shown on this trumpeter swan. The swans are the largest waterfowl birds of the northwest and remain on the endangered species list at this time.

Carry this message to your loved ones and remember this eagle in the story as you do so. His message told (through this story) must be shared from generation to generation in order to keep Mother Earth and her beings the best they could ever be.

On the REGI website it says: Every bird that goes though the process of rehabilitation with REGI has a place in our minds and in our hearts. While we never own these birds we share their lives while they are with us, until they can fly free once again.

Each patient is special in his/her own way. Sometimes it is the story that goes with the bird. Perhaps, it is the fine people that recovered the bird and brought it to REGI for rehabilitation. Sometimes it is the horror of the injury the bird survived to fly again.

And it is with this statement that I leave as part of the ending to this story. The story that came with this male bald eagle is clear - it was a message from our Creator and those animal and bird spirits that have walked on before us. Treat the earth with much respect, but treat all creatures that call this place home, the same. Let it be known that the message the bird has left behind in heart and mind is to be more conscientious about what it is you do when you hunt or fish. Also, when other family members and friends are out fishing, inform them of the harms of lead sinkers and let them know of non-lead alternatives.

Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers, along with all of the other birds that are at the sanctuary with injuries or illnesses.

PTT will have a story sometime this spring on the eagle’s release.

An Update:

Gibson had contacted me on February 3, 2009,

letting me know that the eagle is now eating on his own. She also mentions that she has four more swans at her facility that are undergoing Ca EDTA treatments at the same time.

The swans mentioned in this story are now eating on their own and standing now.

Information about the Raptor Education Group, Inc:

The Raptor Education Group, Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to caring for injured or orphaned native bird species and public education on wildlife issues. All donations are tax-deductible.

We have three main focuses:

- Education

Wildlife education programs are provided for adult and children’s groups. Our feathered educators accompany us to all our programs.

- Rehabilitation

We provide medical treatment, food, housing, and professional care to native bird species.

- Research

Behavioral, nutritional, disease, and post-release studies done at REGI have contributed to the base knowledge for avian species throughout the world.

REGI holds permits from both the State of Wisconsin and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to possess threatened and endangered indigenous species for rehabilitation and educational purposes. We are members of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, Raptor Research Foundation, and American Society of Ornithology.

One of the largest in the world, this flight training facility is used to teach eagles and other birds to fly. It also is used to help raptors build muscle and social skills necessary in the wild.

REGI’s Executive Directors

Marge and Don Gibson founded Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI) in 1990. Marge has worked with wildlife for over 30 years. She began her work with raptors as a field biologist. She has worked with many high profile field projects including the California Condor Recovery Team and the Bald Eagle Capture and Health Assessment Program in Valdez, Alaska following the Valdez Oil Spill where she was team captain. In addition, Marge teaches wildlife rehabilitation internationally. Don is a recently retired M.D. His specialty is pathology.

(Information about REGI and the executive directors was obtained from their website .)


Main sources for wildlife lead poisoning are from hunting, recreational shooting and fishing sinkers such as:

• Spent lead shot

• Bullet fragments

• Fishing sinkers

Lead particles are ingested and

Gradually erode in the digestive system.



• Enters bloodstream

• Causes lead poisoning

• Lowered food intake

• Weakness

• Weight loss

• Drooping wings

• Inability to fly

• Green watery diarrhea

• Also makes the animal more susceptible to disease or predation

As few as five ingested pellets can kill a duck or goose

It ‘s difficult to treat once the case is advanced and hard to remove lead from the body of an animal.


• 1991 lead shot banned for waterfowl hunting nationwide. This decreased wildlife deaths from lead.

Use of lead in fuel, paint, pesticides and solder in food cans has been eliminated

• Lead is STILL used in upland game and rifles as well as fishing sinkers. There is discussion of banning these uses of lead as well.

It is Important to properly dispose of old sources of lead in the home through disposal as hazardous waste (during hazardous waste pick-ups).

• Sources include: solder, putty, welding, batteries, leaded glass, ink, old paint, lead weights, old ceramic glaze, hunting gear, and fishing tackle.

• Household potential sources of lead contamination can be treated as hazardous waste and dropped off separately at the FCP Solid Waste Building or your local Solid Waste Building during a drop-off day, or any time.

Ways you can get the word out:

Write your representatives!

This issue could be addressed at the State or National level.

One difficulty is that although the objection is to the environmental effects of lead, the gun lobby sometimes sees this attempt to ban lead ammunition as an attack on gun rights. So, one should be clear that IT IS A CONCERN ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS.

Until there is not a lead option, there will be the cost differential in the products.