New study shows nearly half of bald eagles affected by chronic lead poisoning

Liberty Wildlife employees examine a hawk in an operating room at the refugee in south Phoenix on March 4, 2022. (Photo by Troy Hill/Cronkite News)

A juvenile bald eagle, which has been rehabilitated by the staff at Liberty Wildlife in south Phoenix, flies inside an enclosure at the refuge on March 4, 2022. (Photo by Troy Hill/Cronkite News)

A golden eagle rests in its enclosure at Liberty Wildlife in south Phoenix on March 4, 2022. (Photo by Troy Hill/Cronkite News)

A sign at Liberty Wildlife shows the difference in wingspans of various types of Arizona birds on March 4, 2022. (Photo by Troy Hill/Cronkite News)

A display at the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s headquarters in Phoenix shows nonlead bullets, left, lead bullets and the fragments of a lead bullet on March 16, 2022. (Photo by Troy Hill/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A new study from the journal Science found that almost half of bald eagles and golden eagles in Arizona and 37 other states suffered from chronic lead poisoning.

The main way eagles consume lead is through their diet. Lead bullets and shot used in hunting game and varmints break apart on impact, and the carcasses are scavenged by birds of prey, who then ingest the lead.

A bald eagle peers through the fencing of its enclosure at Liberty Wildlife in south Phoenix on March 4, 2022.(Photo by Troy Hill/Cronkite News)

Experts say solutions are simple: use nonlead ammunition or remove gut piles and carcasses from the field. The Arizona Game & Fish Department has a program that in certain cases allows hunters to swap their lead ammo for free.

“We’ve had 80 to 90% over the last decade of hunters in the area either switching to nonlead alternatives or removing their gut piles out of the environment,” said Kenneth “Tuk” Jacobson, the department’s raptor management coordinator.

Vince Sable, a wildlife research biologist and one of the authors of the Science study, said the poisoning is suppressing bald eagle populations by 4%, slowing the 10% growth seen over the past several years. Lead poisoning also can impair eagles’ ability to fly.

The study showed that 46% to 47% of bald and golden eagles had chronic lead poisoning and 27% to 33% of bald eagles had acute lead poisoning. The figure for chronic lead poisoning was determined by finding traces of lead in the birds’ bones, showing lower levels of exposure over long periods of time. Acute lead poisoning was determined by finding lead in the animals’ blood and feathers, which shows higher concentrations of exposure in shorter periods of time.

The condor population has suffered from the same lead poisoning, which nearly drove them to extinction, according to National Geographic.

“A lot of it is open areas where (scavengers) are feeding on carrion and carcasses that are left out,” said Jan Miller, animal care coordinator at Liberty Wildlife, an animal rehabilitation and refuge center in south Phoenix. “Oftentimes, people will go out and varmint hunt, and they’ll do things like shoot rabbits or shoot coyotes and then leave it there with the intention of … animals can feed on it.

“The unfortunate thing is they don’t understand that the lead is going to poison the animals that are now going to eat that carcass.”

(Video by Payton Major/Cronkite News)

Cronkite News reporter Payton Major contributed to this story.

Troy Hill troy hil (he/him/his)
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Troy Hill graduated in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in film production. Hill worked for the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation and is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

Payton Major Pay-ton May-jor (she/her/hers)
Weather Innovation Squad

Payton Major expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degrees in broadcast journalism and meteorology, as well as certificates in GIS and atmospheric sciences. Major has interned with CNN Weather and MadridMedia and works for WeatheRate and the Arizona Climate Office. She is assigned to the Phoenix news bureau weather innovation team.