A B.C. bird rehabilitation organization is sounding the alarm after treating a trio of golden eagles for lead poisoning.

All three birds were found near Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast this year, and taken to the Orphan Wildlife Rehabilitation Society (OWL) in Delta for treatment.

“People had recognized that they weren’t flying away and they were kind of lethargic, they weren’t scared, they were just sort of not doing what eagles should do,” general manager Rob Hope told Global News.

“When they were captured they were very docile, they didn’t put up any fight.”

Blood testing revealed all three birds had lead in their system.

While golden eagles are far more uncommon than their cousins the bald eagle, Hope said both species are threatened by lead.

The facility treats between 140 and 150 eagles a year, and while it can’t afford to test all of them, Hope said about 85 per cent of the ones they do test turn up positive for lead.

“This is just a drop in the bucket. The amount out there that are dead and not found is probably substantial,” he explained.

OWL can’t be sure how the eagles ingested the lead, but the primary suspect is from ammunition used in hunting.

Lead is banned in B.C. for hunting waterfowl, but is still used in bullets and shot for other animals.

Hope said fragments lodged in discarded animal parts are sometimes eaten by eagles, who are scavengers by nature. Even if they excrete the fragments, the lead still gets into their bloodstream, he said.

“The symptoms we will see can be anywhere from neurological to digestive to respiratory,” he said.

“Lead has been banned in paint for humans … for years. There’s a reason it is.”

While lead poisoning can be fatal for raptors, it’s not an automatic death sentence.

Severe cases can be treated by something called chelation therapy, which involves injecting a synthetic solution into the bloodstream to help remove some heavy metals.

Two of the eagles brought into OWL have already been released, while one remains on site receiving treatment.

The BC Wildlife Federation says while many hunters have already switched away from non-lead ammunition, some still use it because of familiarity and cost.

But Hope said he wants to see greater education and possible regulation around the use of ammunition containing lead, which could go a long way to protecting the apex predators.

“Unfortunately, these animals are letting us know that something in the environment isn’t right,” he said.

“And some of them are losing their lives.”

Eagles and death metal: Trio of raptors found on Sunshine Coast with lead poisoning

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