Turkey Vulture #12-2667

Admission Date: 
December 28, 2012
Location of Rescue: 
Louisa County, VA
Cause of Admission / Condition: 
Lead toxicity
Patient Status: 
Patient Archive

On December 28, an adult Turkey Vulture was found by the side of the road in Lexington, Virginia. The vulture’s rescuers picked it up and transported it to the Wildlife Center that same day.

Upon admission, the vulture was quiet, but alert. Dr. Dana and diagnostic intern Julia examined the vulture and performed a physical exam. Once Julia started to pick up and restrain the vulture, the bird began to regurgitate – vomiting is a notorious defense mechanism of vultures!  Dr. Dana found that the vultures crop was distended – as though it had a lot of food in it that it wasn’t digesting well. The bird was also having difficulty breathing. While no other physical abnormalities were noted, blood work revealed a “high” lead level – meaning the exact lead reading was too high for the Center’s machine to read.

Julia diluted the blood sample, a technique that the Wildlife Center uses to interpret the “high” reading on the in-house lead level machine. After the sample was diluted twice, Julia noted a reading of 6.1 ppm – an extremely high level of lead. While this level of lead would be deadly in a different species, turkey vultures tend to be more resistant to the effects of lead than other species. While Dr. Dana and Julia knew that the prognosis for this vulture was still poor with such a high lead level, they decided to proceed with treatment.

The first thing Dr. Dana and Julia needed to do was to remove the food that was stuck in the vulture’s crop. Julia anesthetized and intubated the vulture, and Dr. Dana proceeded to flush out the crop using a diluted antibacterial solution. Once they were satisfied that the vulture’s crop was empty, they bandaged the crop to help hold it in place – this sort of pressure bandage provided support and prevented the expansion of the crop during feedings. The vulture recovered and received its first dose of chelation therapy. It was placed in the Center’s holding room for the night.



 The following day, radiographs were taken of the vulture. Dr. Dana noted four pieces of lead in the vulture’s stomach. Dr. Dana planned a feeding protocol to help things “move along” through the vulture’s system so that the lead fragments would pass. Dr. Dana prescribed a twice-a-day feeding plan: in the mornings, the vulture would receive a specialized diet for carnivores that is highly digestible; in the evenings, the vulture would receive Metamucil.

On January 1, the vulture was considerably brighter and was attempting to stand in its enclosure. The team will continue to monitor the bird; additional radiographs will be taken to check for the lead fragments.


January 17, 2013

On January 6, Dr. Dana radiographed Turkey Vulture #12-02667 again to check on the status of the one remaining lead fragment in the vulture’s digestive system. The lead fragment was still present, though a follow-up lead test on January 9 revealed a much lower level:  0.373 ppm. Chelation therapy continued.

Over the following days, a small diet of chopped, skinless rat and mice was offered to the vulture. At first, the food was not moving through the vulture’s system, though by January 11, food was beginning to move through the vulture’s crop. On January 13, the vulture was hock-sitting in its enclosure and ate its morning meal; in the afternoon the vet staff found the vulture dead in its enclosure. It appeared as though the vulture had regurgitated its meal and likely aspirated; this may be due to the damage to the gastrointestinal tract caused by lead toxicity.

January 4, 2013

The veterinary team radiographed Turkey Vulture #12-2667 on January 4 to check on the status of the four pieces of lead that were present in the Turkey Vulture’s digestive tract upon admission. Drs. Rich and Dana were becoming increasingly concerned about the presence of the lead and decided that if the pieces were still present, they would need to attempt to remove them. Fortunately, the radiographs revealed that three of pieces had passed through the vulture’s system; the final piece appeared as though it was moving along through the vulture. The vulture is still receiving a daily dose of Metamucil, but Dr. Dana has prescribed a diet of “regular” vulture food –rats and mice-- for the bird’s other meal.

The vulture’s lead level was tested again on January 2; this time around the dilution technique revealed a level of 2.38 ppm. While this is still quite high, it was a lower level than what the veterinary staff found upon the vulture’s admission. A second round of chelation therapy will begin on January 5.