The bald eagle. As the national bird and majestic symbol of the United States, its image draws up thoughts of strength and stoic heroism.
But on September 17, 2009 an adult male bald eagle needed help. Reportedly, the eagle had hit a power line while it was soaring, fell to the ground and was reported to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The Game Commission came to the site of the report in Lancaster County, PA and took the bird to Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc. in Newark, DE.
“On admission, the bird was thin, he was dehydrated, covered in lice and was wobbling and uncoordinated, showing signs of ataxia – an indication of a neurological disorder,” said Dr. Erica Miller, veterinarian at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research. “He would rest on his hocks rather than stand, and when he was disturbed, he would throw his head from side to side, attempt to walk but then fall backwards.”
In addition, the bird had a suppressed heart rate and slightly elevated white blood count.
“The initial concern was for head trauma since the impact and fall had been witnessed, but our staff was very concerned about potential poisoning,” said Dr. Miller. “The signs he was exhibiting were more classic of chronic lead poisoning and the suppressed heart rate suggested that there may be organochemicals, like pesticides or pharmaceuticals, or other toxins involved.”
As such, samples were sent to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center Campus to be tested by the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System (PADLS).
“Toxicology testing at New Bolton Center is routine protocol for all of our eagles, loons and gannets,” said Dr. Miller, “and it’s an important part of our protocol because we’re trying to monitor environmental contaminants like lead and mercury in these ‘top-of-the-food-chain’ species,” she said.
“The tests confirmed the elevated blood lead level and also ruled out mercury poisoning as another possible cause of the bird’s clinical signs,” said Dr. Lisa Murphy, assistant professor of Toxicology, Department of Pathobiology. “In addition to the lead, further blood testing revealed significant quantities of barbiturates, which also probably explained the eagle’s unusual symptoms. It is not uncommon for birds of prey and other scavengers to become sickened by these drugs, generally after feeding on a euthanized animal,” she said.
Meanwhile, quick treatment of the bald eagle at Tri-State Bird Research & Rescue was key.
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