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The recent autopsy of a young eagle discovered in Yorktown found two balloons, several pieces of cardboard and paper, an aluminum soda can tab, a thumb tack, plastic particles, plastic wrapper material and one unidentifiable item in its intestines.
“We don’t typically see animals that have eaten that much trash,” said Amanda Nicholson, the director of outreach for the Wildlife Center in Waynesboro.
The center took in the eagle, which was still alive when it was rescued last month from the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, after the rehabilitators with the Hampton Roads-based Wildlife Response Inc. noticed the bird was suffering a broken wing.
The Wildlife Center of Virginia is one of just a few wildlife hospitals in the state equipped to perform surgeries on injured animals, as well as being one of the only permitted wildlife rehabilitation groups authorized to treat bald eagles, which hold a special protected status under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Upon its arrival at the center the bird was taken for X-rays to determine the extent of its injuries. Center staff were not surprised to find confirmation of the broken wing, but something on the scans did catch their eye: multiple foreign objects were lodged in the bird’s intestines.
“Metal objects show up on the scan more clearly than others, so we could immediately tell the eaglet had ingested something it shouldn’t have,” Nicholson said.
A blood test also revealed the bird had almost lethal quantities of lead in its system.
Eagles, which are scavengers, face the greatest risk of lead poisoning during hunting seasons, when they often end up eating tiny fragments of lead ammunition left in the “gut pile” of kills that hunters dress in the field.
“A piece of lead the size of the tip of a pencil can be deadly” Nicholson said.
The combination of the broken wing, the intestinal distress and the high lead presence in its blood led center staff to make the decision to humanely euthanize the eaglet.
“The wing would have been a complicated repair, as it was a spiral fracture along the length of the bone rather than a clean break. [But if that had been the only issue] we probably would have at least tried to repair it surgically, and the eagle may have been viable,” Nicholson said.
After the eagle’s death, the staff veterinarians performed an autopsy to figure out exactly what foreign objects the bird had eaten. Veterinarians are unsure if the eaglet ate the trash itself or ate other animals that had eaten the trash.
The staff at the center was especially disappointed to find balloons inside the animal’s stomach because the Center has personally undertaken initiatives to raise awareness about that particular form of litter.
“People seem to think of balloons as being in a different category than other trash,” Nicholson said. “They release them into the air and don’t think about the fact that they have to come back down.”
Currently the Center has 10 other eagles in its care that it is in the process of treating and trying to rehabilitate, a number that is “unusually high,” Nicholson said. This may be due to the fact that the eagle population in Virginia is actually thriving at the moment, so more birds means there are more cases of injury being reported, especially as their home ranges continue to shrink.
Though eating or becoming entangled in litter is a huge risk to wildlife, Nicholson says that of the 25,000 animals that come through the hospital in a year, injuries from being hit by a car are by far the most common.
This is why staff at the Center are encouraging people in the community to start thinking of biodegradable food products as potentially harmful litter, because when it is disposed of along the road it attracts wildlife to areas close to fast-moving cars.
The Wildlife Center of Virginia has some tips for if see an injured wild animal:
- Contact your local permitted wildlife rehabilitation group (call the Wildlife Center if you need to get a reference).
- If you believe you can contain the animal, approach with caution.
- If you are able to safely contain the animal, keep it in a dark and quiet place until professionals can come retrieve it.
- Do not feed or give water to injured animals unless you are specifically told to do so by a permitted wildlife rehabilitation group.