In January, an anonymous source delivered a very sick golden eagle to the Montana Raptor Center in Billings, Montana, which rehabilitates injured birds.
The young male eagle was in bad shape, barely breathing, curled up, talons clenched. The experts at the center thought the bird didn’t have a chance to survive. Testing showed he had been poisoned by lead—almost certainly from eating bullet or shot fragments in an animal killed by a hunter—and blood levels of the toxic metal were literally off the charts, higher than the maximum levels registered by their machine.
“He was on death’s doorstep,” says Jordan Spyke, operations manager for the center and a raptor expert.
This is not an uncommon event. Lead poisoning is a serious problem for raptors that scavenge on dead animals, such as golden and bald eagles, as well as vultures. While some efforts are being made to address the problem, lead ammunition kills many species of iconic birds.
Some regulations have been passed to limit the use of lead ammunition. Effective July 1, all lead ammo will be illegal to use for hunting anywhere in the state of California, due to the widespread poisoning of critically endangered California condors. Other states like Arizona also encourage hunters to use non-lead ammo such as brass. And since 1991, the metal has been disallowed when hunting waterfowl in the United States.
Since 2015, the center has brought in 73 golden eagles and 59 bald eagles, and 99 percent have had lead in their systems, Spyke says.
Other studies on allegedly healthy golden eagles have shown alarming numbers. One study of 74 goldens captured in southwestern Montana from 2008 to 2010 showed that nearly all had detectable levels of lead in their system; nearly one-third had subclinical poisoning, and one in six had levels indicating full-blown poisoning. Another paper looking at 178 golden eagles sampled in the Helena National Forest in Montana from 2006 to 2012 showed that one-fourth had levels in the range of subclinical poisoning and 10 percent were above the poisoning threshold.
Lead poisoning also took a golden eagle from Yellowstone Park in April. But it wasn’t just any golden—it was the first of its species fitted with a GPS tracker, as part of a study by the U.S. Geological Survey. The eagle wandered outside the park, and almost certainly ingested lead fragments from an animal killed by a hunter, according to news reports.
But it’s not just the Yellowstone area: Many species of raptors or scavengers in the United States (and worldwide) may be afflicted by lead poisoning, in particularly California condors, golden and bald eagles, turkey and black vultures, Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, and ravens.
This particular eagle was lucky, though. The staff at the raptor center, upon her delivery, began feeding her food intravenously, as well as calcium EDTA, which binds to and removes lead from the blood.
He slowly improved, to the point that he was well enough to begin taking to the air in the facility’s enclosed flying space. For months, he built up his muscles and learned to fly again.
On a bright afternoon in late June, Spyke traveled to a hillside outside West Yellowstone, Montana, to set him free. The bird, named Golden Eagle 04, was relatively quiet during part of the ride. But once we approached the hill for release, and began moving around the cage, he came to life, bumping insistently against the sides of his cage.
A peek inside revealed an absolutely gorgeous bird, albeit peeved, excited, desirous of flight. You could sense he knew something was coming. A powerful bird with brown feathers, an almost orange tinge to them, and massive talons.
Spyke and Josh Elliott, host of the show Yellowstone Live, on the National Geographic Channel, took him out of the car and set the cage it on a rock. The time had come.
“I have to ask, in these final moments, what’s this like for you?” Elliott asked.
“You know, it’s amazing… We nursed it back to fighting shape and gave it a second chance on life, we’re here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there’s not a much better feeling than that.”
And with that, Spyke crimped the latch on the eagle’s cage and opened it up. Golden Eagle 04 was ready. He lunged into flight, his massive wings propelling him out and up into the cool mountain air. All were silent; the only noise was the flapping of the eagle’s wings. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.
He slowly rose and banked toward a distant treeline.
“Man, just soaring off right there,” Spyke exclaimed, when he found words.
“That is extraordinary,” Elliott agreed. “So much bigger than you could get a sense of in the crate.”
“Still going,” Spyke said, as the bird wheeled and finally landed in a distant pine tree, then took off again and vanished into his new home.