Friday, December 9, 2011

Snowy Owls and Lead Poisoned Bald Eagles

As the seasons shift from fall to winter, our clinic is still as busy as ever. Winter is usually a Wisconsin rehabber's "slow season," but there is truly nothing slow about the season we are experiencing here this year. Our clinic is still full, and more patients are coming through the door. While the babies of summer are gone, we are seeing cases of starvation and lead poisoning instead.

Photo above: Aurora, our Educational Snowy Owl, looking as beautiful as ever in fresh snow.

If you are a follower of happenings in the world of bird news, then you're probably aware of this year's irruption of Snowy Owls. If you haven't heard about it yet, I'll get you in the loop! Already this year, hundreds of Snowy Owls have been spotted throughout Wisconsin and other parts of the US. When these "irruptions" or "invasions" occur it is usually because of a dip in the lemming populations in the far north. Lemmings are small rodents that make up a large part of Snowy Owl's diets. Lemmings go through cycles of high and low populations which influence the owls. In times of low populations, the owls are forced south in search of food. The last time an irruption such as this occurred was in 2006.

This year, the owls are moving south, but it is likely because the lemming populations over the summer were high allowing the owls to have a very successful breeding season. Now that all of those baby Snowies have grown up, they are becoming territorial and the young owls are forced to find territory elsewhere.

The Duluth News Tribune put out a little article about the latest Snowy Owl irruption and you can click this link to check it out.

I prefer to refer to this movement of birds as an irruption because I think that "invasion" makes the birds sound frightening. They are nothing of the sort. They are simply gorgeous birds looking for new places to survive. This is somewhat good news for birders who may get a glimpse of these amazing birds which are rarely seen in Wisconsin. It also means that because they've flown all the way from the arctic in search of food, many may be starving or exhausted. Please keep an eye out for these magnificent birds. If you see a Snowy owl (or any bird) that is in need of assistance, please call our rehabilitation clinic at (715) 623-4015. We will be able to help you make the best decisions to help the bird.

A Snowy Owl has found her way to our clinic after what appears to be a horrible ordeal. Some very kind and thoughtful folks went out of their way to get her the help she needs. Kay Hawksford from Drummond, WI found the Snowy Owl along Highway 63. She scooped it up and brought it to safety. Luckily her husband, John, is a pilot so they were able to transport it to Antigo very quickly.

Photos above: Kay and John Hawksford and their daughter flew the injured owl to the Antigo airport where it was then transferred by van to REGI. (Photos by: Alberta Halfmann)

Photo above: When the Snowy Owl arrived, the rehabilitators examined her and learned that she is very thin, has a broken leg, and has bruising on her breast. She also smelled of skunk. We have to put the story together like pieces of a puzzle because the animals we help cannot tell us what happened. It is likely that she was forced out of the arctic and flew to Wisconsin in search of food and a place to live. Out of desperation and hunger, she went after a skunk, a fairly common occurrence with Great-horned Owls, but very strange for Snowies. Possibly hurt by the skunk and still weak from starvation, she was unable to fly very well and wound up being struck by a vehicle, leaving her with a broken leg. It is easy to see by her expression that she has been through a lot. Her size indicates she is female, and she is a young owl judging by the amount of dark speckling on her feathers. Adults have less to no dark speckling on their bodies.

Gun deer hunting season is now over and that means we will be treating many Bald Eagles suffering from lead poisoning. Several patients in our clinic at the moment are Bald Eagles with lead poisoning, and I'll introduce a couple to you now.

Photo above: This gorgeous Bald Eagle was found in the Merrill, WI area. She is shown here with Executive Director, Marge Gibson, right before her examination. The eagle was being watched by some concerned citizens who knew they needed to do something. They watched her and made sure they knew where she was until Marge could get there to rescue her. Without their help, she would have ended up like so many other birds that need help, but are lost forever.

Photo above: Once back at the REGI clinic, her blood was tested for lead and she was diagnosed with lead poisoning. That makes her the 7th Bald Eagle admitted into the REGI clinic with lead poisoning since this fall. She is shown here in the arms of Don Gibson after he drew her blood for testing.

The next patient I'll introduce you to has an encouraging story.

Photo above: This Bald Eagle was admitted a few weeks ago with blood lead levels so high that our lead analyzing machine couldn't read it. Lead levels that high are a death sentence without treatment. The rehabilitators immediately began chelation treatments to remove the lead from her blood, but for three weeks her blood lead levels were still too high to be read by the analyzer. Marge tried a technique that has never been done before with birds, and it seems to have worked! This may be a breakthrough, but more research needs to be done. Her lead levels have dropped dramatically, and excited "high-fives" were passed among the staff here when we learned the good news. We are not out of the woods yet, but we may have found a key to treating these extremely ill birds. We continue to look forward to her complete recovery, and we could not be happier with her improvements.

It is estimated that for every one Bald Eagle suffering from lead poisoning that is found and brought to a rehabilitation center for help, there are 9 others that are never found that suffer and die needlessly in the wilderness. For the 7 lead poisoned eagles that were brought to us for help so far this fall, there were likely 63 others who were not as lucky and were never found. We work so hard through the year to get the word out about lead-free options in hunting ammunition and fishing tackle, and yet every year we treat many birds suffering from the effects of ingesting lead. It is such a senseless loss of life and I will never understand why people would knowingly let that happen.

I grew up with a strong tradition of hunting and fishing in my family, and I am a hunter and a fisher myself. When I learned about the horrible things that lead does to wildlife and saw for myself a gorgeous Bald Eagle suffering from lead poisoning, I made the decision to change my ways. I now hunt with lead-free copper bullets and fish with bismuth-tin alloy tackle. It has been one of the easiest changes I've made, and I encourage everyone out there to do the same. If you love the outdoors, the small extra cost for safe ammo and tackle will be worth it. Maybe one day in the future, you'll look up and see a Bald Eagle flying gracefully in the sky-- a Bald Eagle that would have been killed after ingesting a piece of your lead had you not made the switch.

We will never stop educating people and encouraging them to switch to safe alternatives and we hope for a year where we won't see a single bird suffer due to the carelessness of humans. It is a dream of ours, and you can help make that happen.

On top of all of the busyness in our clinic, the education department just finished the Fall 2011 Newsletters so you should be expecting those in your mail box or email inbox very soon. We ship out over 1800 paper newsletters each mailing and that's the reason we haven't been able to offer you many updates recently. It is quite an undertaking, but we enjoy it, and we hope you enjoy reading it as well! If you aren't on the newsletter mailing list yet, we'd be happy to add you! You can sign up for the paper version by sending me your address at (or Molly at or you can go GREEN and sign up for the paperless email version by clicking on this link. You can find past and current newsletters on our website and by following this link.

Please keep us in mind with your end of year donations. This year has been a record breaker in terms of patient numbers, and we need your help now more than ever.

Thanks everyone!

Karissa Mohr
Wildlife Educator


  1. excellent article; most informative.
    would you be wiling to expound on the new treatment for lead poisoning in the extreem cases?

    i watch the Decorah eagle cam and am very familiar with SOAR's work in Iowa. They also lost an adult eagle with Pb poisoning that was very high.

  2. Thank you for the story on the snowy owls. I have only seen two of them my whole life and never forgot the experiences. Magical. Please keep us posted on the injured young one that just came to you. I know she is in the best and kindest of hands.

  3. I was taken back to read about the estimated rate of lead poisoning that you quote above -- for every 1 eagle found there are 9 more in the wild that suffer and die in the wild. How was the estimate determined -- is there a source I could read more about? Thanks

  4. Wonderful news about the treatment. I was wondering the same about sharing it with others that care for these birds. Could they contact you about it?

    Any news on Herky? Is her leg healed? Did she gain more weight? Is she still with you? Do you have more pictures?

    I watched the 2011 Decorah Eagles Cam and am hooked.

  5. Lois, it is shocking to hear isn't it?

    Sean Strom, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife toxicologist, presented a summary of recent findings on the impacts of lead exposure to Wisconsin's birds.
    He stated that the human detection of sick or dead birds is less than 10%.
    When sick or injured, wild animals tend to seclude themselves, making it more difficult to find them. If a huge number of birds die at once, people tend to notice, but if one bird dies, it will frequently go unnoticed.
    To view his entire presentation, follow the link below. I found it to be quite interesting.

    Thank you for your comments everyone! Treatment information and an update on Herky will possibly be discussed at a later time.