A bald eagle perches in a tree side the Kenduskeag River. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Spinney

Richard Spinney lives in Brewer with his wife of 48 years. He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 20 years’ service, sold real estate for 23 years while also teaching adult ed algebra for 10 years, was a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist for a few years and the treasurer of The Maine Genealogical Society for 14 years. He has volunteered for Avian Haven since the summer of 2016.

This story is the fifth in a series by Richard Spinney about his experiences transporting injured and sick wild birds for Avian Haven bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, Maine.

Before volunteering as a transporter for Avian Haven, I did some research. I read about the people and the facilities, and I read some of the annual reports, which can be found on its website, avianhaven.org. They make for very interesting reading.

After a couple years as a transporter, I had taken any number of songbirds, crows, mourning doves, a few nests of baby birds and even an occasional hummingbird and bald eagle to Avian Haven for treatment. What impressed me most about the people at the bird rehabilitation center was their dedication, from the few regular staff to the volunteers on site and the volunteer transporters.

Despite not being paid, volunteers put in many hours, and in some cases, many miles. No matter what bird it is — from a hummingbird to the majestic bald eagle and everything in between — they do their best to treat the bird so it may survive and be released into the wild. Unfortunately, not all birds survive.

In January of 2017, I received a phone call from Diane Winn, co-founder of Avian Haven. The conversation began as it always did: “Richard, are you available?” I was.

There was a bald eagle in Bangor that was being retrieved by a biologist from Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. I drove to Bangor, met the biologist, got the crate with the eagle in it and headed to Avian Haven.

When eagles are healthy and call to each other, they make a loud, distinctive chirping sound. The bird in the crate in my back seat was mostly quiet. Now and then, it would cry out — a mournful, agonizing cry. I had heard that cry before. I assumed the eagle had lead poisoning and it was suffering. Now and then, I talked to the eagle trying to make it feel better, but deep down I knew it didn’t understand.

This is quoted from Avian Haven’s 2018 annual report: “Eagles dying from acute, fatal lead exposures do not pass away peacefully; their last hours are often marked by seizures as well as severe respiratory distress due to the impaired ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen.”

Two adult bald eagles perch in an evergreen tree, side by side. Eagles keep the same mate for life, unless one partner dies early. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Spinney

A video of a bald eagle with lead poisoning can be seen here. Although it is upsetting, it is worth watching.

Upon arriving at Avian Haven, the staff was ready to receive the eagle. Diane sat upon the stool that I had once sat upon to hold an eagle. This eagle slumped in her arms and gasped for air. Marc Payne, the other co-founder of Avian Haven, drew blood, and another person tested it for lead.

There were bands on the eagle’s legs, so Marc looked it up on the computer. “We’ve seen this eagle before,” he said. Those were the only words spoken. Each person silently went about the work at hand. This eagle had been treated for secondary exposure to pentobarbital a few years before, along with its mate. The mate had died, but this eagle had survived and was eventually returned to its home territory.

The results of the lead test indicated levels were “off the scale.” Due to the location where it was found, it was surmised that this eagle had eaten the remains of a crow that had been shot with lead ammunition. Despite the number of videos we have all seen of eagles grasping fish out of the water, they are also scavengers. They eat dead things.

Again a quote from Avian Haven: “Eagles owe huge debts of gratitude to the many hunters who have fully embraced their conservation heritage by switching to non-toxic ammunition. We hope that all who have made that change are sharing their experiences with lead alternatives, noting the ballistic as well as environmental advantages. Any readers with hunter friends still on the other side of the fence can buy their acquaintances non-lead ammunition as birthday or holiday gifts.”

For recent information about using lead-free ammunition, visit maine.gov.

“Folks who decide to continue to hunt with lead can prevent collateral damage to eagles by not leaving gut piles in the field, and by asking their butchers not to make waste meat from their animals available for use as bait,” according to Avian Haven.

The crew got ready to treat the eagle for lead poisoning, even though they all knew deep down the effort was likely futile. Hardly anybody spoke, and when they did, they did so quietly and in a few words. I left them, walked quietly through the outer office, past the candy dish where I usually take a piece of candy as my “pay,” and walked solemnly to my car. A few hours later, the beautiful bald eagle known fondly by many as Bangor Mom would be dead.

Her memory lives on and, in a way, so does she, as I will explain next week, in part two of this story.

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