A mysterious illness is killing bald eagles in Utah, and biologists are working diligently to determine the cause of death of 16 eagles that have died this month alone.
"We're turning these eagles in to labs to have testing done. We've got preliminary results back for the first three eagles," said Mark Hadley, public information officer for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "The preliminary results say the birds did not die of lead poisoning."
Hadley said the majority of bald eagles in Utah come here during the wintertime while migrating south. The birds begin arriving here in November, with their population numbers peaking by the end of February and into March. the end of March, the vast majority of birds head north to nest.
The bald eagles that have been stricken with this unknown illness have been sent to a laboratory in Madison, Wis., to have blood work and toxicology screenings done. Final results on the three initial birds tested should be expected in the next three to four weeks, Hadley said.
DWR Wildlife Disease Coordinator Leslie McFarlane said they have been taking in dead and affected birds from a widespread geographical area, from counties such as Tooele, Box Elder and Utah. One sick eagle that later died was discovered on Dec. 18 by a hiker in Centerville. Four additional eagles are currently in rehabilitation centers, McFarlane said.
Hadley said the most common habitat for bald eagles is around the Great Salt Lake, which provides them with a great amount of food and scavenging opportunities. DWR Northern Region Outreach Manager Phil Douglass said that, in Summit County, the Weber River corridor near Henefer and Lost Creek are common feeding and loafing areas for bald eagles.
If anyone finds an eagle that is sick or injured, Hadley said they should contact one of the DWR's regional offices right away.
"We encourage people not to pick up birds on their own," Hadley said. "They're very big and powerful. Note the location and call us and we'll get someone out who can pick the bird up.
Since it was declared an endangered species in 1967, the bald eagle's population has thrived in the lower 48 states. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of bald eagle breeding pairs has increased from 487 in 1963 to roughly 9,789 in 2006.
McFarlane said the DWR has not yet received any reports of sick eagles in Summit County, but Hadley said their office has "eyes all across the state" keeping track of them and they are asking for assistance from the public as well.
"Call the DWR if you notice anything wrong with an eagle," Hadley said, adding they should know soon what it is that is affecting these eagles. "It's going to take time to find those answers."
If you see a sick or injured bald eagle, contact one of the Utah DWR's regional offices. To reach the Northern Region office in Ogden, call 801-476-2740. For the Northeastern Region office in Vernal, call 435-781-9453. Visit wildlife.utah.gov for more information.