They couldn't save Wilson the bald eagle, but his death may help Soarin' Hawk Raptor Rehabilitation Center save other eagles and raptors from suffering a similar fate from lead poisoning.
"We're very sad this one died, but we're learning a lot and hope to educate people," said Dr. Pat Funnell, a veterinarian at Pine Valley Veterinary Clinic and president of Soarin' Hawk's board of directors.
Earth Day this Saturday will be a time to enjoy the natural areas and plant and animal species that have been saved through conservation efforts. It also will be a time to consider the challenges ahead.
As the wild population of the American bald eagles increases, for example, human introduction of contaminants such as lead into the environment has become a bigger problem.
The main sources of lead affecting eagles and other raptors appear to be lead pellets in hunting ammunition and lead weights used in fishing, Funnell said. Eagles and raptors can swallow lead while feeding on the carcass of an animal killed using lead ammunition or while eating an animal wounded by lead ammo or which has swallowed lead fishing weights.
That appears to be what happened to Wilson, who was given that name by Soarin' Hawk volunteers, Funnell said.
The bird, whose white head feathers indicated he was at least 5 years old, arrived at Soarin' Hawk on March 28, Funnell said. Someone in LaGrange County saw him staying on the ground and called an Indiana Department of Natural Resources conservation officer.
By that time, Wilson was sick enough the officer just laid him on his vehicle dashboard and drove him all the way to Fort Wayne, Funnell said.
When he arrived, Wilson was suffering from severe head tilt — his head drooped over so far it was almost upside down — but his weight and feathers looked good, Funnell said. They thought he may have suffered a head injury.
The next day, however, he couldn't stand up, Funnell said. They took a blood sample and sent it off to a laboratory for analysis, but it took the lab five days to return the results, which showed Wilson had high levels of lead in his blood.
An X-ray showed a tiny shotgun pellet slightly bigger than a pin head in his stomach, Funnell said.
She ordered the drugs needed to make a compound that would reduce the lead levels in his system, but it took a few more days for the drugs to arrive, she said. In the meantime, they gave him Metamucil fiber supplement in the hopes it may get his digestive system to expel the lead pellet. The pellet didn't budge.
Wilson died April 12 before they could start treatment with the compound, Funnell said.
Soarin' Hawk had shared the news of his care on its social media accounts, and donations came pouring in, Funnell said. Using that money, the all-volunteer, nonprofit Soarin' Hawk bought a blood-testing device that will provide blood analysis results in 3 minutes.
Funnel and Soarin' Hawk volunteers also hope to create greater public awareness about the dangers of using lead ammunition and fishing weights.
"I'm surprised at how many people don't how big an issue this is," Funnell said.
About 90 percent of the 120 to 130 bald eagles received each year at the University of Minnesota's The Raptor Center have elevated lead residues in their blood, the center reports on its website, www.raptor.umn.edu/our-research/lead-poisoning. In 20 percent to 25 percent of those eagles, the lead levels are high enough to cause clinical lead poisoning, and most of the birds die or are euthanized.
In a study done from 1996-2009, center researchers found a strong correlation between the number of eagles suffering lead poisoning and the time and locations of late fall and early winter deer hunting, the website said.
Use of lead ammunition for shooting waterfowl has been banned nationally since 1991 due to poisoning problems caused by birds eating lead pellets for grit to help them with eating food, a report by the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center said.
Lead fragments in deer also would pose a health danger to people eating venison, Funnell said.
However, hunters don't seem to want to admit they are part of the problem, she said.
"We're not anti-hunting," she added.
Soarin' Hawk volunteers just want hunters to switch to ammunition that doesn't contain lead, she said.
For more about Soarin' Hawk Raptor Rehabilitation Center, go to www.soarinhawk.org.
Soarin' Hawk still is seeking a donation of about 20 acres near Fort Wayne to build a new, larger raptor rehabilitation center because it has outgrown the current center on private property and the facilities there are worn out. The all-volunteer, nonprofit group also is raising money to build the new center, said veterinarian Dr. Pat Funnell, board president.
They hope to have the new location and move to it by the end of 2018, Funnell said.