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Pittsburgh bald eagles at risk from rat poison

| Monday, May 5, 2014, 5:29 p.m.
Courtesy PixController Inc.
A Pittsburgh bald eagle feeds a rat to its eaglets. Birdwatchers fear the birds could be in danger if they eat a rat that has been poisoned at a nearby former recycling center.
Courtesy PixController Inc.
A Pittsburgh bald eagle feeds a rat to its eaglets. Birdwatchers fear the birds could be in danger if they eat a rat that has been poisoned at a nearby former recycling center.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission and eagle watchers are concerned that the Pittsburgh bald eagle family could ingest rat poison used to kill vermin in a newly sold recycling center.

Rat poisons can kill raptors if the birds eat prey that has consumed the poison, the Fish and Wildlife Service says.

The eagles' nest — the first in the city in more than 150 years — is less than a mile from the recycling center.

In the last week, the parents have brought three rats to their three hatchlings, according to a monitor of the nest for the National Aviary.

Bill Powers, president of the company that set up the nest webcam with the game commission, said, “The chances of the eagles picking up one of these rats could be pretty high.”

Known for their fishing abilities, eagles are scavengers that will go after road kill and other dead or dying animals.

The adult eagles frequently perch in the sycamores by the recycling center and hunt in the area, observers say.

Kirk B. Burkley, attorney for GGMJS, which bought the site, said the company intends to kill the rats with poisoned bait. He said he was unaware that eagles were feeding on rats around the recycling center.

“You can't win,” Burkley said, after a bankruptcy hearing on Monday. “The county health department is requiring us to do that.”

Guillermo Cole, Allegheny County Health Department public affairs officer, has said the health department in March put poisoned bait around the center.

“Obviously, we prefer that they not use poison, but we have no legal authority to stop them from doing that,” said Tom Fazi of the game commission.

According to Maria Wheeler, a Duquesne University researcher who has studied eagles, there have been a number of studies on the effects of rat poisons.

“Bald eagles are opportunistic scavengers, and carrion is an easy-catch meal,” she said. “An excess of poisoned rat carcasses could be a problem for any urban animals, including the bald eagles or even neighborhood cats, dogs, and other pets.”

Hazel Blackman of Hazelwood said residents want to get rid of the rats immediately.

“If they don't want the rats poisoned, set up traps and trap them,” said Blackman, president of Action United's Hazelwood chapter, which organized a protest at the center on Friday. “I don't want to see the eagles get sick, but I don't want to see my children get sick.”

Eagle watchers want the company and the local government to find another way to get rid of the rats.

“The eagles are bringing in more rats than usual,” said Annette Devinney of Penn Hills, eagle enthusiast and amateur photographer.

“Can't they remove the garbage and find another way than using poison?” she said.

Mary Ann Thomas and Bob Bauder are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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