© 2023 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Two North Country bald eagles die of lead poisoning

Trish Marki
North Country Wild Care
This lead-poisoned eagle was rescued in Warren County, but later died.

Two bald eagles died in the North Country this spring after being poisoned with lead. That’s according to a wildlife rehabilitation group in the Lake George area. This comes at a time when there’s a fierce debate over sportsmen’s use of lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle.

"She didn't even survive overnight."

Trish Marki has been a wildlife rehabilitator with North Country Wild Care for more than a decade. She’s federally licensed to handle bald eagles. Last month, she got the call about a bird that looked sick in Washington County.

"There were some fishermen who had gone to a DEC fishing site on the Battenkill. They saw this eagle on the ground that had been sitting there for a while, not moving," Marki said. "Two days later, we got a call for another one up on Glen Lake in Warren County."

Credit Trish Marki / North Country Wild Care
North Country Wild Care
Marki says capturing eagles is tricky and can be dangerous.

State wildlife biologists later tested both eagles and found that they were poisoned with lead. For years, biologists have warned that sportsmen are introducing too much lead into the environment with ammunition and fishing tackle. 

One toxicologist with the U.S. Geological Survey described the level of lead poisoning in some wildlife species – including loons and eagles – as “daunting.” Marki said seeing a lead-poisoned eagle up close is wrenching.

"It's very hard to watch, the suffering they go through. They often have seizures. The gall bladder on the second bird was the size of a golf ball and it should be the size of the tip of your pinkie. She didn't even survive overnight once we caught her, and to see such a majestic bird in such decline, it's horrible. It's horrible to see that, especially knowing that we could prevent it," Marki said.

Scientists say the contamination works like this. Sportsmen shoot lead bullets or use lead sinkers in the wild. Fish and other species become contaminated and are then eaten by raptors or waterfowl – and the lead poisoning builds until it’s fatal.

But this issue has become another culture war flashpoint in America. Sportsmen’s groups have pushed back hard against efforts to curtail the use of lead ammunition – which they describe as part of their tradition.

"All I'm trying to do is save some of these animals."

Marki says finding herself in the middle of a big national political fight is uncomfortable.

Credit Trish Marki / North Country Wild Care
North Country Wild Care
The young eagle captured in Washington County also died of lead poisoning.

"It is because I'm not looking to alienate people. I'm not trying to put anybody down for their choices. All I'm trying to do is save some of these animals from going through this agony," she said.

Marki said a lot of sportsmen don't believe the science leaking their equipment to lead contamination, but she says the growing body of research from organizations like Cornell University and the University of Minnesota is conclusive.

"We have proof of it," she said. There are some efforts to ban lead sports gear. California is phasing in strict limits by 2019. But Marki said her preference is for people who hunt and fish to switch to alternatives voluntarily.

"Use lead-free ammo and lead-free sinkers. They're available. Almost any caliber gun, there is an option that is lead free. The complaint might be, well, it's more expensive, but you probably spend less on ammo than you would on clothing and other things they wear to go hunting. And it would be saving lives."