In this blog I typically write about birds that come to your birdfeeders, but I assume you are interested in birds of all types and that you care about their health and survival. Sometimes it’s necessary to look at the broader picture and the environmental threats to particular species. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, ‘Get the lead out’, meaning to get going. There is another, literal meaning of that statement, one that has an impact on the health and wellbeing of all vertebrates. Lead is a highly toxic metal and one that has been until recent decades found in our homes and the environment. It is especially harmful to children, by causing damage to the central nervous system and impairment of neurological development. For that reason the EPA (Environvmental Protection Agency) began to ban leaded gasoline in the 1970s. In 1996, it was banned by the Clean Air Act for use in new vehicles. Paints containing lead were banned for residential use in 1978. While both of those bans were important and helpful, lead remains in our environment and is still a cause of death for wildlife, particularly waterfowl and eagles.
Obviously these birds are not being poisoned by gasoline or paint, but they are consuming lead fishing tackle and lead that is found in bullets. According to the Humane Society, an estimated 20 million animals, including 130 differing species found throughout the food chain are affected.
Millions of ducks, geese and swans were dying annually not because a hunter shot them, but because they ate lead shot (pellets) that fell into the water. Because of that unsustainable loss the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to phase in the restriction of lead shot starting with the 1987-88 hunting season. The ban became nationwide in 1991. Six years later researchers found a 64% reduction in annual lead poisoning in Mallards alone. We can surmise that similar results occurred among all waterfowl, who feed by picking up lead shot from the bottom of the lakes, ponds or marsh where they gather. Sadly lead pellets can remain available in wetland environments for 25 years or longer. Using new, nontoxic ammunition, waterfowl hunters continue to have success and create a safer, healthier environment for everyone.
Also found in the water are lead sinkers lost by countless fishermen. These too are picked up by waterfowl with similarly tragic results. This is especially disturbing knowing that lead fishing gear account for 50% of mortality for the Common Loon. There is no national ban on using lead in fishing tackle, but individual states can and have issued bans.
Then there are the large birds that will scavenge the remains of deer killed by lead bullets. Eagles are especially good at finding gut piles or deer that have been shot and died but not found by the hunter. In both cases the bullet explodes in the animal and spreads the lead throughout. Radiographs have shown dust-sized bits of lead up to a foot and a half away from the bullet hole. This is considered indirect lead exposure.
One hunter I know, who is a staunch conservationist has watched wildlife come and feed at the gut pile from the doe he killed two days before. While he sat in his stand, he watched two bald eagles, three ravens, two pileated woodpeckers, one hairy woodpecker, several blue jays, and numerous chickadees and nuthatches come in to partake of the feast. For this reason, he is a hunter who has switched from lead to copper bullets. He knows what can happen to a Bald Eagle that has gotten lead into its system.
The Raptor Center (TRC) at the University of Minnesota regularly gets eagles that are suffering from lead poisoning.
The birds may be lethargic, weak, or experiencing more severe symptoms like head tremors, blindness, paralysis and seizures. Today Bald Eagles are one of TRC’s most common patients with between 150 and 190 admitted every year. They come in with a variety of injuries or illnesses, but 25-30% have lead poisoning. Sadly, most of these birds either die or must be euthanized because they are too far gone.
I am not a hunter, but I believe most hunters are conservationists, who care about wildlife in general. They know their prey species are dependent upon our stewardship of the land and water resources. So, if you are a hunter or know a family member who is, please ask them to, ‘Get the lead out’.
By Kate Crowley