Last October, a three-year-old bald eagle hunting for prey over an expanse of farmland near Greenville, in Monroe County, allegedly flew into a game farm’s tall wire fence, became entangled and struggled to free itself, breaking a wing in the process.
Game farm employees found the injured bird, and West Virginia Natural Resources Police Officer J.C. Wheeler was made aware of its situation and location.
After driving to the scene and carefully carrying the eagle to his vehicle, Wheeler drove the injured bird to the Three Rivers Avian Center at Brooks, in Summers County, about 25 miles away.
"When I first saw the extent of the eagle’s injuries — the broken bone and all that lacerated tissue — I didn’t know if he would make it," said Wendy Perrone, executive director at Three Rivers. An analysis of a blood sample from the bird did nothing to brighten that prognosis.
"There was enough lead in his system to make him very sick," Perrone said.
While Perrone was hopeful the eagle’s wing could be saved and enough lead could be removed from its bloodstream to no longer endanger its health, she was doubtful the bird would ever fly again.
But recently, at the edge of Bluestone Lake, the eagle, named Monroe IV by followers of the Three Rivers’ Facebook page, demonstrated how far he had progressed since October.
An instant after Wheeler opened the door to its cage, Monroe IV flapped its way into the sky as a small crowd of onlookers watched and cheered. The eagle made a low-level flight across a section of lake, then gracefully banked to the north, disappearing behind a densely forested slope rising from the shoreline.
"Here, he’ll have plenty eat and lots of buddies to hang out with," Perrone said. "He hasn’t established a territory yet, so he’ll have some time to jazz around and see where he wants to be."
Perrone said it was fortunate the eagle was spotted soon after it was injured on Oct. 23, and that Wheeler promptly brought the bird to the Three Rivers Avian Center. Also key to the bird’s recovery was a successful two-hour operation two days later at Charleston’s Good Shepherd Animal Hospital, during which veterinarian Sarah Stephenson implanted a pin in the broken bone in the eagle’s right wing to repair the fracture and suture torn tissue.
After the pin was removed in early December, rehabilitation work got underway in the avian center’s flight barn. By January, the eagle was flying laps in the avian center’s enclosed circular flyway to build up wing muscle strength.
Meanwhile, the eagle received a series of calcium disodium EDTA injections to successfully treat its lead poisoning.
"We are seeing so many cases of lead toxicity these days," Perrone said, particularly in raptors like hawks and eagles and scavengers like turkey vultures and black vultures.
Accumulations of spent lead ammunition across the landscape are believed to be the primary source of the lead poisoning. The heavy metal can be ingested by birds feeding on the gut piles of deer and other big-game species killed by hunters, or the carcasses of game animals wounded by gunfire that later die, but are not found, by hunters.
When a lead bullet strikes an animal, it doesn’t just lodge in one spot or pass through the body. In many cases, it fragments into multiple pieces, sometimes numbering into the hundreds. Some of those fragments have been found to travel more than a foot from the bullet’s original path.
A 2015 study by wildlife researchers from West Virginia University, Virginia Tech, Michigan State and the U.S. Forest Service found that lead permeates the landscape of the Eastern United States to a previously unrecognized degree. Bone samples taken from all 106 black vultures and turkey vultures involved in the study showed lead levels indicative of long-term exposure.
Once in a raptor’s system, lead affects nerve function and interrupts neurotransmission, causing the bird to lose coordination. In high concentrations, lead can paralyze the birds as their muscles waste away.
"A lot of these birds are flying drunk these days," Perrone said.
Hunters switching to non-lead ammunition, like copper bullets and steel shotgun pellets, would go a long way toward reducing lead toxicity in eagles and other birds of prey, Perrone said.
"We took the lead out of gasoline and it made a huge difference in public health," she said. "Now that non-lead ammunition prices have gone down and are competitive with lead ammo, maybe more hunters will make the switch."
Since the early 1980s, when the state’s first known bald eagle nest was documented in a remote canyon of the Potomac River’s South Branch near the Hardy-Hampshire county line, the state’s eagle population has steadily grown.
In the Greenbrier and New River watersheds of Southern West Virginia, volunteers have conducted winter eagle surveys on one day in January for each of the past 18 years. During the 2023 survey, volunteers spotted 79 bald eagles.
While eagle sightings were relatively rare 20 years ago, there are now more than 200 nesting pairs of eagles within the state, along nearly every major waterway.
"You’re in eagle country now," Perrone said.