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A deal bald eagle on its back in the lab.
Information icon Eagle carcass recovered at Norris Lake. Photo by Dr. Rhoda M. Ralston, DVM, Senior Veterinary Medical Examiner.

Lab confirms lead poisoning cause of death of bald eagle found at Norris Lake

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory has concluded analysis of the bald eagle carcass found on Norris Lake in late February of 2009.

The necropsy (an autopsy most commonly performed on animals) ruled out death by gunshot wounds, chemical poisoning, trapping, or power line electrocution. Lab personnel, in consultation with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, determined the eagle’s liver contained elevated levels of lead, leading scientists to conclude the eagle died of lead poisoning.

It is suspected the eagle may have eaten something containing lead shot. Although lead shot was banned for use in waterfowl hunting in 1991, it is used to hunt a variety of game animals. Eagles primarily eat fish, but also scavenge carcasses to supplement their diets. It is not uncommon for eagles to feed on animals that may have been shot.

A disturbing twist to the discovery of the eagle’s carcass was the notable absence of both feet. This mutilation heightened the Service’s and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s interest in finding the culprit. Eagle feet and talons are prized as trophies by poachers who sell them on the black market.

The initial concern was that someone killed the eagle to sell its feet and talons. Given the cause of death was lead poisoning; it appears the investigator’s concern was unfounded.

“We now think a more likely scenario is someone came across the dead eagle and cut off the feet and talons as souvenirs,” said Ryan Noel, Special Agent, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Knoxville, Tenn. “But this is still an illegal act. Bald eagles, including their feathers and parts, are protected to remove the profit motive.”

The Service is requesting anyone with information about this incident to contact the Office of Law Enforcement in Knoxville at (865) 692-4024.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of American people. For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/southeast.

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