06/19/2012 07:59 EDT | Updated 08/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Lead poisoning in eagles worries researchers

Researchers on P.E.I. are taking blood samples from eagle nestlings to better understand why lead is showing up in an increasing number of dead and injured bald eagles in Atlantic Canada.

Taking samples from young eagles will give the Atlantic Veterinary College researchers an idea what lead levels eagles might start out with in life.

"This gives us some baseline values of normal young healthy eagles to compare with [what we'll have] during the winter, that's going to be higher," said researcher Marion Desmarchelier.

"In P.E.I. we suspect it could be because of the different hunt during the winter, like crow shooting."

Desmarchelier believes the poisoning is caused by the eagles eating animals that have been killed with lead bullets.

Getting the samples is an involved process. A researcher climbs to an eagle nest and places the nestling in a five-gallon bucket. The eaglet is already quite large, with a wing span of close to 1.5 metres. The nestling is brought to the ground, where a sample is taken. It is then put back in the bucket and returned to the nest.

The researchers have done this with more than 30 birds this year, an unusually large sample for such a small geographic area.

"It's never really been done that way in Canada, I think," said Desmarcheliers.

"Some lead studies have been done in Canada and worldwide, but that's pretty unique on P.E.I. to have such a big population."

Emma Vaasjo is doing much of the blood sampling. She said the testing will show if adult eagles are passing lead on to their babies.

"It's obviously a really dangerous metal," said Vaasjo.

"It's a dangerous poison, and if the eagles are feeding their eaglets anything that's been contaminated with lead — any fish, any cormorants, any crows, anything like that — the young might be even more susceptible and die off earlier."

Researchers are hoping to return to the same nests next year to test the blood of more baby eagles.