Lead and eagles: demographic and pathological characteristics of poisoning, and exposure levels associated with other causes of mortality

Abstract

We conducted a retrospective analysis to evaluate demographic and pathologic characteristics in 484 bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and 68 golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) diagnosed with lead poisoning at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center. As part of our analysis, we compared characteristics of lead poisoned eagles with those that died of other causes. Odds of lead poisoning were greater for bald eagles versus golden eagles, females versus males, adults versus juveniles, and eagles from the Mississippi and Central flyways versus the Atlantic and Pacific flyways. In addition to spatial, species, and demographic associations, we detected a distinct temporal trend in the collection date of lead poisoned bald eagle carcasses. These carcasses were found at greater frequency in late autumn and winter than spring and summer. Lesions in lead poisoned birds included emaciation, evidence of bile stasis, myocardial degeneration and necrosis, and renal tubular nephrosis and necrosis. Ingested lead ammunition or fragments were found in 14.2 % of bald eagles and 11.8 % of golden eagles. The overall mean liver lead concentration (wet weight basis) for eagles diagnosed with lead poisoning was 28.9 ± 0.69 SE mg/kg in bald eagles and 19.4 ± 1.84 SE mg/kg in golden eagles. In eagles diagnosed with collision trauma, electrocution, poisoning (other than lead), emaciation, infectious disease, trapping death, other, and undetermined causes, average liver lead concentrations were low (<1 mg/kg) and did not differ among causes of mortality. Thus, based on our data, we found no evidence that lead exposure of eagles predisposed them to other causes of mortality.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the field biologists who submitted eagle carcasses, members of the field team at the NWHC for consulting with field personnel, the many pathologists who conducted necropsies, and staff of the NWHC laboratories who provided diagnostic support, including lead analysis. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to J. Christian Franson.

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Franson, J.C., Russell, R.E. Lead and eagles: demographic and pathological characteristics of poisoning, and exposure levels associated with other causes of mortality. Ecotoxicology 23, 1722–1731 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10646-014-1337-0

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Keywords

  • Bald eagle
  • Golden eagle
  • Lead exposure
  • Lead poisoning
  • Mortality
  • Pathology