When I was a kid in the ‘70s, spotting a bald eagle in Iowa was about as likely as seeing a wild buffalo. DDT had practically wiped out our nation’s bird, as well as many other species.
DDT didn’t necessarily kill the adult bald eagles and other birds, but it caused the shells of their eggs to be too thin to withstand incubation.
When America adopted the bald eagle as the national symbol in 1782, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles.
DDT, loss of habitat and shooting led to a decline in bald eagles that left us with fewer than 500 mating pairs of bald eagles in 1963.
Although DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and bald eagle populations have been on the rise since then, most people still find the sighting of one of our nation’s birds to be a special and noteworthy occurrence.
But there’s still something that’s endangering them. Hunters and fisherman pose threats — but not in the way you might think.
Lead shot and lead fishing tackle are causing the food source of the eagle to be toxic. Eating is, perhaps, a bald eagle’s most dangerous activity.
Primary lead exposure in eagles — or any bird — is caused by the bird eating lead directly, mistaking it for food or grit. Secondary lead exposure comes from the eagle eating another animal that contains lead. This prey animal either swallowed lead or has lead shot embedded in it.
I am not opposed to hunting or fishing. Some of my favorite people fish and hunt.
Ironically, hunters and fishermen tend to be some of the most patriotic people I know. Some of the biggest wildlife enthusiasts. Some of the people who would be most excited to see a bald eagle.
But when you cast your lure, you might kill a bald eagle. When you shoot a pheasant, you might kill a bald eagle. And you don’t just kill them, you cause them to have an excruciating death.
There are groups that are making a difference for bald eagles and other birds. Groups like one founded by Kay Neumann.
When I first met Neumann in the mid-1990s, she was the naturalist for Audubon County. My son T.J. and I went to Nathaniel Hamlin Park near Audubon to participate in a nighttime hike through the woods. We learned some interesting things. We didn’t use flashlights. "Give your eyes a little while to adjust," Neumann told us. "Humans can see about as well in the dark as a deer can."
We walked through the forest, listening for the distinctive hoot of the great horned owl. We learned that if we mimicked the call, we might be able to draw the owl toward us.
It was a wonderful thing to learn. We would often sit on the front porch and try to do our best great horned owl calls. It was remarkable how often owls would answer back, or even come closer and get upset that another "owl" was in their territory. When these owls get upset, they sound like monkeys.
If you haven’t ever carried on a conversation with a great horned owl, you’re missing out.
But I digress. I mention my meeting of Kay Neumann because after she left Audubon County Conservation, she started a nonprofit organization that rescues and rehabilitates raptors. It’s called SOAR, which stands for Saving Our Avian Resources.
SOAR cares for about 200 birds each year — birds that were injured or orphaned, not all of them raptors. But the group seems to have a special way with raptors, especially bald eagles.
I follow the group on Facebook. That is how I learned of the rescue of "Adel," a bald eagle that was found in Dallas County, near (of course) Adel.
That is also how I found out that Adel died.
SOAR is currently caring for several birds, including a great horned owl and bald eagle. Sadly, their efforts weren’t enough to battle the lead that had poisoned three bald eagles, who died in just the past few weeks.
A bald eagle that was rescued in Winneshiek County on Jan. 23 was named Samantha.
On Jan. 30, SOAR posted this sad update on its website (soarraptors.org):
"We were working against the odds with this eagle. She had two strikes against her by the time she was admitted — her extremely elevated blood lead level and her weight loss. Lead is an absolutely horrible toxin that impacts all bodily functions. Her kidneys and liver had shut down. Samantha Eagle died sometime after last check on Saturday and first check on Sunday. The only solution to this problem is prevention."
There are things you can do to help. For one thing, you can support SOAR and groups like it, by liking their Facebook page and following their work. You can donate money to help fund their efforts.
And, perhaps most importantly, you can stop using lead shot, stop using lead fishing tackle. Whether or not you fish or hunt, you can tell your friends and family who do. Tell them to get the lead out. The eagles are depending on it.
Ronna Lawless is a writer for the Nevada Journal and Tri-County Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.