Getting the lead out of our Golden Purifiers

They are probably not most peoples’ choice for a favorite bird. As a wildlife rehabilitator, I have been hissed and growled at, thrown up on, (a reaction to the stress of being handled), bitten and clawed by these animals, but like many of my fellow rehabbers, I have developed a fondness and admiration for these large, intelligent, curious and dignified birds.

I’m referring to Turkey Vultures.

The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. Its scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”*

Turkey Vultures are brought to the Pacific Wildlife Care Center for a variety of reasons, but by far the most common reason is lead poisoning. Like their larger relative, the California Condor, these carrion-eating birds are poisoned from eating dead animals that have been shot with lead bullets. Once the lead enters the bird’s gut, it is broken down by acid strong enough to kill the most noxious bacteria and break down bones and fur. As the lead enters the bird’s bloodstream, it damages every organ in the body. In addition to anemia, joint and muscle pain, weakness and severe cramping, the digestive tract shuts down. There is often leg paralysis, depression and impaired brain function. Lead poisoning is a medical emergency because time is a factor in the reversibility of the damage. High levels of lead can result in blindness and death for the bird.

Lead Toxicity: Diagnosis and Treatment

Due to the numbers of lead-poisoned vultures and other birds Pacific Wildlife Care receives, including Golden Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks, we purchased a lead-testing machine. We are able to determine immediately if an animal has been poisoned and begin treatment. We also take radiographs to ascertain if there is lead still in the digestive system which will continue to poison the bird. Efforts are made to get the bird to pass the lead and if that is unsuccessful, it is sometimes necessary to remove the lead by using endoscopy. This means inserting a tube into the bird to retrieve the lead particles.

The treatment for lead poisoning, called chelation, is long, difficult and painful. It requires frequent handling and multiple injections daily. In the best cases, the lead levels come down and the bird recovers. Sadly, many times we are unsuccessful and the bird dies or is humanely euthanized.

I do remember one bird, a juvenile that came to us unable to fly. Unlike the adults, juvenile turkey vultures have fuzzy black heads and soft blue-brown eyes. He was lead-poisoned but we caught it in time and were able to treat him and return him to his large, extended family, properly called a venue in vulture speak.

Too often, lead poisonings do not turn out well and we don’t know how many birds and mammals die that never make it to Pacific Wildlife Care. It has been determined that a single #4 lead pellet will kill a large bird over a period of two to four weeks if not removed.

Good news on the lead front

In October, 2013, California became the first state to ban lead ammunition for hunting. The ban goes into full effect in July, 2019. There have been other partial lead bans in the past, most notably in 1991 for hunting waterfowl, but this is a complete ban. Californians should feel proud of this achievement and we are hopeful that it will make a difference.

“As I watch a kettle of Turkey Vultures effortlessly rising on thermals against a clear blue sky, rocking and swaying without a wasted wing movement, the pleasure of their company is often accompanied by a silent wish for them to be careful out there.” -Claudia Duckworth

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Lead-poisoned Turkey Vultures recovering at the Pacific Wildlife Care Rehabilitation Center.

Photos by Jeanette Stone

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