Last April, I had the honor to give a “Last Lecture” to my colleagues and students at Penn State New Kensington on the occasion of my pending retirement from Penn State. The title of my talk was “The Bald Eagles of Pennsylvania.” I chose this topic not because it was part of my research agenda or because I was an expert on eagles (neither was anywhere close to the truth!), but, rather, because I get a visceral thrill when I see a bald eagle flying overhead and the bald eagle population of Pennsylvania has undergone dramatic (and wonderfully positive) changes over the 34 year time period that I had had the privilege of teaching at Penn State. I felt that I could use the topic of bald eagles to convey to my audience both my love of the natural world and as an example of how a few simple, logical conservation measures could lead to the repair and resurgence of some part of our historically and carelessly damaged environment.
When Deborah and I moved to Western Pennsylvania in 1983, it was possible to see bald eagles (mostly up around Lake Erie) but they were very uncommon and to see them required a lot of hiking or canoe paddling (and luck!). In the past four or five years, though, mating pairs, year round residents, and overwintering groups have all been seen with great regularity all around our area. I live in Kiski Township in southern Armstrong County and over the past three or four years I have seen bald eagles flying over my house! I have also seen them flying overhead when Deborah and I drove back and forth to work . Once Deborah and I even saw a bald eagle perched along the Kiski River just across the street from the Sunoco Station in North Apollo! The sight of these birds, even though it is getting more and more common, is still very exciting (you can talk about cell phones being a driving distraction, an eagle flying over your car is a REAL distraction!!).
A couple of weeks ago, a bald eagle was spotted behaving oddly down along the Roaring Run Watershed Association Trail in Kiski Township. The eagle, a mature male, was perched on a low branch close to the trail and was apparently unconcerned and unaffected by passing trail hikers and bikers. Many people took pictures of this eagle, but a few recognized that this bird was quite probably in great distress. After twenty-four hours, one of the officers of the Roaring Run Watershed Association called the game commission, and with luck and agility (and a blanket) they were able to capture the obviously ill eagle.
The eagle (which would be named “Kiski” in the media) was taken to the Verona wildlife rehabilitation center where it was x-rayed. A foreign object was noted in Kiski’s stomach, and he was transferred to the Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Saegertown, PA. The object in Kiski’s stomach was made out of lead (a fish sinker from a scavenged fish? Shotgun pellets or lead bullets from a scavenged kill of un-buried gut pile?), and Kiski had extremely toxic levels of lead in his body.
Kiski was thirty years old! This is extremely old for a wild bald eagle (fifteen or twenty years is the expected life span in the wild). News reports indicated the he was brought to Pennsylvania when he was quite young (possibly from Saskatchewan). He was banded when he was released in 1987 near Harrisburg, PA, and is thought to have mated several times over the years producing offspring that have added to our re-surging population of bald eagles.
Kiski was struck by a car in 2012 up in Butler County (a common bald eagle accident because of their propensity to feed on road kills) and was treated for head injuries and bruises at the wildlife rehabilitation center in Harrisville. He was subsequently released back into the wild and then was re-identified after he was captured on the Roaring Run Trail.
Lead is an extremely serious threat to bald eagles. The University of Minnesota Raptor Center reports that over the past twenty-five years 21 to 25% of the sick or injured eagles they have treated have had toxic levels of lead in their bodies. In 2011, the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge reported that 38% of the dead eagles they recovered had been killed by lead poisoning. The Pennsylvania Game Commission reported that in 2015 and 2016 40% of the dead bald eagles that they recovered had toxic levels of lead in their bodies. The feeding habits of this magnificent bird and their opportunistic consumption of carrion exposes them to high levels of lead in unrecovered ammunition and fishing tackle.
It is very sad that the story of Kiski the eagle does not have a happy ending. Kiski died of lead poisoning about a week after he was taken to the Tamarack Rehab Center. The veterinarians and technicians at Tamarack did all that they could, but the lead levels were just too high, and Kiski, the “grand old man” that he was, to quote one of his Harrisville care givers, was possibly too old and debilitated to continue his struggle for life.
Kiski the eagle represents both a great success story and also a pointless tragedy. Our eagles are back, but we need to help them stay healthy and active. Lead in the environment hurts everyone whether it is in water, air, or in a solid form that can be ingested by animals. There are many reasonable alternatives to lead! We as reasonable people need to agree on this and do what we can to make our environment safe for all of Kiski’s offspring and for all of us!