(Updated at 12 p.m.) A bald eagle rescued on Metro tracks has died — but not before revealing something interesting.
The eagle died earlier this week after being rescued near the Van Dorn Metro station tracks and rushed to the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Boyce, Virginia. His broken wing was a deep fracture down to the bone, and it was located too close to his elbow to ever heal properly, said service providers at the wildlife hospital.
But Blue Ridge staff said blood tests from the bird were a surprise.
“It’s actually our first eagle in three years not to have lead in its system,” said Dr. Jen Riley, the hospital’s director of veterinary services. “We test every single bald eagle that comes in because they tend to have very high lead levels.”
Riley told ALXnow that eagles are primarily scavengers and often absorb lead by eating dead animals shot with lead bullets. “There are huge amounts of lead in Virginia because we have such a huge hunting population,” she noted.
In the past, some eagles rescued in the area have had faced long recoveries from lead poisoning, among other injuries. Riley said finding an eagle with no lead in his body probably meant he was frequently fishing in the Potomac River.
“There’s definitely an awesome population of eagles near the Potomac, but that implies they have pretty good food there,” she said of the lead test.
D.C. has sunk billions into cleaning up its long-polluted waterways, and there are signs it may be paying off: scientists are spotting more dolphins downstream, and some hope it will be clean enough for humans to swim in soon. An eagle being able to regularly fish from the water may be another good sign — but Riley cautioned that a fish shortage might then have driven the bird to seek other prey.
“They probably just have a good amount of dead mice or rats along Metro tracks,” she said of her guess why two eagles this year have been found near the tracks. “Raptors in general are on our roads for that reason.”
Both raptors were transported to the National Eagle Repository, which collects deceased eagles for Native American ceremonies. The program is part of the Bald Eagle Protection Act, dating back to the 1940s, that restricts who can and cannot care for eagles and keep parts, like feathers. Although the eagle populations have rebounded since the country stopped using the notoriously deadly pesticide DDT, the federal protections remain in place today.
Riley said anyone who finds an eagle should contact their local animal control, and if they’re not sure who that is, they can contact state wildlife hospitals like Blue Ridge, which will help them find the right person to help.