Will somebody please think of the eagles?
Bald and golden eagles in the US are facing a new existential threat: lead poisoning caused by bullet fragments left behind by hunters, Insider reports. In other words, the national bird of the United States is suffering from one of the most American pastimes.
"Every single time a lead bullet hits a deer, it fragments into many, many pieces," research wildlife biologist Todd Katzner, coauthor of a new study on the phenomenon published in the journal Science, told Insider. "It only takes a tiny fragment, something the size of the head of a pin, to kill an eagle."
The team discovered a shockingly high prevalence of lead poisoning among the two types of eagles after examining data from 2010 to 2018, suggesting widespread hunting is posing a very real threat to bird species in the US — beyond just shooting and killing wildlife, that is.
A whopping 47 percent of bald eagles, and 46 percent of golden eagles, showed signs of chronic lead poisoning in the more than 1,200 eagles examined by the researchers. Roughly a third of both species of eagles showed signs of acute lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning can wreak havoc on the health of birds, causing lesions or even paralysis and death in the most acute cases.
Worse yet, the researchers found the rates of lead poisoning were high enough to actually impact the growth of the species.
"Over a 20-year period, you're talking about thousands and thousands and thousands of [eagles] that are being removed from the population," Katzner told Insider.
Fortunately, there's an easy way to mitigate at least some of these cases: convincing hunters to switch to non-lead bullets. That's something they're likely to do willingly "once they find out they're potentially poisoning animals," coauthor Vince Slabe, a research wildlife biologist at the nonprofit Conservation Science Global, told Insider.