A cage covered in a red blanket shakes as the creature inside rustles around. The creature’s handler, Dr. Karra Pierce, sets down its cage and explains that it hasn’t been in the wild for several months, and that once she releases it, it may be a few minutes before it leaves its cage and flies away.
Several months ago, Pierce said a Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) officer found a bald eagle near a carcass in Pittsylvania County. The officer became concerned when he was able to get within several feet of the eagle. The officer took the eagle, lethargic and behaving strangely, back to the Southwest Wildlife Center of Virginia where it was found the eagle had experienced something all too common among large raptors; lead poisoning.
“We see it all the time,” Pierce said.
Several months later the same eagle, known as 20-994 to the VDWR, was released by Dr. Pierce on Friday, July 31 near Leesville Lake. The eagle was fortunate. Pierce said an amount of lead the size of a single grain of rice can kill an adult bald eagle.
“Lead intoxication is unfortunately very common in our scavenging raptors,” Pierce said.
Pierce said the bird likely ingested lead while eating the carcass of an animal killed by hunters using lead ammunition.
“It’s becoming more of a problem because of increasing human-animal interactions,” Pierce said.
20-994 continues to shake its cage after Dr. Pierce sets it down in the middle of a field and starts a Facebook live session to broadcast its release. They stand on property owned by Appalachian Power, which controls the Leesville Lake Dam.
Pierce said eagles can travel long distances, but that it was still important for the bird, especially after one to two weeks of injections and oral medicine to treat its lead poisoning and well over two months of physical rehabilitation after that, to be released in Pittsylvania County.
“If I was abducted by aliens, I would want to be dropped off somewhere that was familiar to me,” Pierce said.
David Agee, an Appalachian Power representative also present for the release, said he thinks it is important for Appalachian Power to allow such conservation projects on company land. Agee said he watched a similar eagle release near Leesville Lake earlier this year, and that Appalachian Power strives to work closely with VDWR to protect local wildlife.
“This is certainly a benefit for the environment and everyone in the community,” Agee said.
After ending her Facebook live and removing the red blanket from the cage, Pierce undoes the latch and opens the door. 20-994 shoots out of its cage like a bullet and heads straight for the lake.
Though Pierce said bald eagle populations are faring relatively well in Virginia, it’s still important to rehabilitate individuals to ensure the population maintains genetic diversity. Pierce said its fine for hunters to leave their kills for scavengers such as bald eagles, but should consider using non-lead ammunition if they plan to do so.
“Every individual matters for the population,” Pierce said.