Updated: Feb 16, 2021
On a cold dreary January day, I assisted park ranger Nick Hatlan in the rescue of a mature Bald Eagle on the Turkey River between Clermont and Eldorado. As we plowed through huge snowdrifts on a rugged path to the river without burying our truck it became completely apparent just how surreal the situation was, and how lucky I was to be doing the things I do for my career as a park ranger.
Nick and I drove our truck as far as we could, and then we headed out on foot. We trekked through the woods in deep snow approximately a half-mile both wondering if we could even get lucky enough to find any sign of the eagle the entire way. We saw an abundance of white-tailed deer signs including a few tails bouncing through the brush, tracks, and scraped trees. As we approached the river, we heard several crows calling around the bend of the river, and wondered if the eagle had met its demise or possibly the crows were feasting on whatever the eagle was eating that caused the suspected lead poisoning.
We stopped on the river bend for a few moments and watched and listened for any other signs to give us a clue. Even on our scavenger hunt to find a sick eagle, the half-frozen river and the water flowing over the rocks in the river bottom created a peaceful scene. We continued upriver for a short distance looking for signs. We both noticed below us on the frozen water and snow some tracks that were out of place and that we did not recognize. Nick asked me if I knew what the tracks were and I stated that I did not know. We continued to walk upriver and Nick abruptly stopped in front of me. Nick said, “I’m just going to go down the bank and look at those tracks.” We backtracked and Nick climbed down the steep river bank, sliding down part all the way to the frozen water. Nick looked downriver, then looked up at me with a huge smile ear to ear on his face, “There it is!” he said.
I grabbed the camera and started shooting some film. Nick climbed back up the bank and snuck around behind the eagle. I watched Nick slide on his pair of welding gloves to protect his hands from the long and extraordinary sharp talons of the mighty eagle. Nick used a towel to cover the eagle and swooped in grabbing it around the wings so it had no chance of escaping his solid grip. After Nick had captured the eagle, he again grinned ear to ear, and I could only imagine the rush he was feeling flowing through him. Nick stated something to me I will never forget and was a great reminder of just how lucky I am to work in conservation and do the things I do. He said “You don’t realize how lucky you are to hold something like this. Very few people get the chance to do this.” Even though we were lucky to do this it was still a grim reminder that sometimes the choices we make in the outdoors can be detrimental to our environment and surroundings.
We made the walk back through the woods and snow to the truck where we transferred the eagle into a portable container. We contacted Linette Bernard who works for our partner SOAR (Saving Our Avian Resources.) She wanted to meet us to get the eagle and get the process rolling on trying to save the eagle as soon as possible because every minute counted at this point.
After meeting Linette, the eagle was transferred to SOAR’s facility where it will be rehabilitated and cared for until, hopefully, it will be ready to be released back into the wild. I am extremely hopeful to be able to look up into the sky and see the eagle again in the future; fully healthy and soaring in the sky.
Despite several days of intensive treatment including hand feeding and watering by the Saving Our Avian Resources Staff, the Bald Eagle we rescued died from lead poisoning.
How does lead poising affect Bald Eagles?
Throughout the winter, bald eagles in Iowa often scavenge in the carcasses of deer, pheasants, and other small game animals that may contain lead fragments from sportsman’s ammunition. Eagles may also ingest lead through eating animals that have been wounded with lead shot. Lead poisoning in bald eagles causes muscle weakness, vision problems, brain swelling, paralysis, and organ failure. Birds that have lead poising have difficulty performing daily functions and often will starve to death within 2-3 weeks of ingesting lead. Sadly, lead poising is the leading cause of death in bald eagles in Iowa.
Hunters in Iowa can voluntarily help reduce the spread of lead poising in eagles by selecting non-toxic shot for all small game hunting. Hunters can also choose non-toxic slugs or bullets for deer hunting. If lead shot is used, hunters should try their best to remove fragments and surrounding flesh from any animal remains left in the field