A hunter’s bullet may kill this bald eagle. But it wasn’t shot | CBC News

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A hunter’s bullet may kill this bald eagle. But it wasn’t shot | CBC News

A bald eagle was found on the verge of death earlier this month in northeastern Quebec, poisoned by lead bullet fragments in its stomach.

The toxic metal was likely embedded in a morsel of carrion that the eagle fed on. Once it settled in the animal’s powerful stomach acid, the lead began dissolving quickly.

It is currently being cared for at a clinic devoted to birds of prey in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., just east of Montreal. But those in charge of its treatment worry the majestic bird won’t live to soar the skies again.

“When the bird came in, it was very weak, thin and not responsive,” said Guy Fitzgerald, a veterinarian at Université de Montréal who founded the clinic and heads up the provincial raptor rehabilitation network (UQROP).

The stricken bird was found on Dec. 4 near Sept-Îles, Que., about 450 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. Following provincial protocol, it was first rushed to the Vétérinaire Septilienne clinic.

Birds of prey found injured or dead must be reported in Quebec. When they’re found injured, wildlife officials will transport the animal to the nearest vet or animal shelter that is part of the provincial network.

When well enough for travel, the feathered patients are then sent to the Saint-Hyacinthe clinic for birds of prey — Clinique des oiseaux de proie — which receives about 450 birds a year.

While many are injured in collisions with windows or vehicles, others are electrocuted on electrical wires. Lead poisoning is not as common, but it can be fatal as it damages the bird’s nervous system and digestive tract, said Fitzgerald.

‘A lot of lead in its blood’

This fall, Fitzgerald said there have been three clinical cases of lead poisoning in birds of prey. 

“If they see the remains of a moose or deer that was hunted, they may feed on it,” he said. “If there are still some parts of lead bullets, they will swallow it with the food.”

In this case, the lead was surgically removed from the bald eagle’s stomach, but the damage had already been done.

“The bird had a lot of lead in its blood,” said Fitzgerald. He sent blood samples to a lab for precise measurements — if beyond a certain level of contamination, a bird is unlikely to survive.

Guy Fitzgerald, who has been rehabilitating birds of prey for more than 30 years, examines a bald eagle. This is not the bird recently found in Sept-Îles, Que. (Richard Bourassa/submitted)

There are 27 different species of birds of prey in Quebec, ranging from hawk owls and golden eagles to snowy owls and red-tailed hawks.

The province’s population of bald eagles has been on the rise, but the golden eagle population remains precarious.

Moving away from lead bullets

People are advised to avoid eating any meat within 10 centimetres of a lead bullet wounds in large game. Animals, of course, don’t heed such recommendations.

That’s why Fitzgerald has been encouraging Quebec hunters to stop using lead bullets.

Bald eagles have been making a comeback in Quebec in recent years, but golden eagle populations continue to decline. (Submitted by Steve Biro)

Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden have all banned lead ammunition. In the United States, California recently banned it and several other states have banned lead fishing tackle.

According to a report published in 2018 by Canada’s Ministry of Environment, ammunition releases about 5,200 tonnes of lead into the environment annually. The ministry encourages hunters to stop using lead bullets as it is toxic to both animals and humans.

Along with tainting meat, lead ammunition contaminates drinking water, the ministry says.

There is lead-free ammunition available on the Canadian market. Made from materials such as copper or steel it is as effective, if not better, than lead, the ministry says.

But some gun groups have argued that these replacement metals are more expensive and not as effective. They’ve argued that hunting releases amounts of lead too small to taint the environment, and they say non-toxic ammo is hard to find.

A lot of these arguments are not scientifically proven, Fitzgerald said.

“I’ve talked with hunters who have hunted with unleaded ammunition for years and they don’t see a difference,” he said. “It’s just a matter of making the choice to not use lead ammunition.”

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