Rehabilitating Birds with Lead Exposure

Symptoms or behaviors that may indicate lead exposure

lead symptoms, eagle hanging headLead poisoning symptoms:

  • Bird may be unable to stand, may appear “drunk”
    • Lead in the system can cause brain swelling (encephalitis) that interferes with vision and nerve function
    • Poor vision can lead to secondary injuries — collisions with powerlines, cars, trees — and may make birds less wary and possibly more easily approached and shot
  • Respiratory distress, open mouth breathing, purple mouth lining
    • Lead impairs the ability of the red blood cells to carry oxygen and so no matter how fast the bird breathes, they cannot properly oxygenate their blood
  • Muscle weakness
  • Dehydration and starvation
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Seizures
  • Death

Attempted treatment

taking blood sampleSOAR can run blood lead levels on site with just one drop of blood. This gives us an immediate result and know for sure if chelation therapy is needed. Photo at right is of someone drawing blood from a vein on the inside of the wing near the elbow for the blood lead test.

  • Oral or subcutaneous fluids are given.
  • If the bird is not vomiting, high calorie, easy to digest meals are given, usually hand feeding is necessary.
  • The bird is kept warm and quiet.
  • If chelation therapy is needed, Calcium Disodium Versenate / Calcium EDTA is used for chelation (this is the same medication that would be used for a human with an elevated blood lead level). It is a process of intramuscular injections twice a day for several days. Then there is a two-day rest period, this allows the lead stored in the organs and bone to come out into the blood where the chelation medication can bind with it to form a compound the kidneys can excrete. Another four days of twice-a-day injections and two days rest. This is repeated for up to six weeks.

dead eagles

A blood lead level (BLL) over 0.2 and less than 0.6 ppm (parts per million) is considered a toxic (also described as sub-clinical) lead level and indicates exposure to lead, but may not be lethal by itself and may or may not require treatment, based on symptoms. A blood lead level above 0.6 ppm is considered a lethal (also described as clinical) lead level and most likely will chelate.