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Lead Poisoning in Birds is Easy to Prevent

bird flying

Lead is a dense and relatively soft metal that has been used for centuries in all kinds of ways. But years ago, troubling discoveries were made about its effects on health: Lead toxicity affects the central nervous system, causing a variety of problems like muscle weakness and tremors, eventually leading to organ failure if not treated.

As a result, its use was banned in common products like gasoline, paint and plumbing. This drastically reduced the effects of lead poisoning on humans, but the danger persists for animals. Birds of prey, or raptors, are particularly vulnerable.

So how does a bird get lead poisoning? It starts with hunting. When big game such as deer are shot with a lead bullet, that bullet often shatters into fragments inside the animal. If the hunter field dresses the animal, removing its entrails on the spot, many of those fragments are left behind. The remaining gut pile is a favorite feast for scavenging birds of prey, like vultures, who then ingest the particles and suffer grave consequences.  

One of the most affected species is often regarded as a symbol of America itself: the bald eagle. And although hunting with lead bullets is not a new phenomenon, its danger to the eagle has been increasing. As their preferred waterside habitats have been overtaken by construction, and eagles have moved farther from rivers and lakes, less of their diet has come from the water and more of it has been scavenged from the forest floor.

As a result, more than 70 percent of the bald eagles that come to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, for any illness or injury, are found to have lead toxicity. The lead can be removed through a process called chelation, but often the intervention comes too late. This presents a real problem for a species that has already fought hard to come back from the brink of extinction.

There is a similar danger to waterfowl, which swallow bits of rock and other hard debris to aid in their digestion. Lead-based shot was banned years ago in the hunting of waterfowl, to prevent surviving birds from swallowing it and becoming ill. But they still find and swallow lead—in the form of lead-based fishing tackle that has settled among the rocks in their habitats. When the same tackle is swallowed by fish, the fish becomes toxic to any bird that may eat it.

The good news is that this problem is an easy one to prevent.

Here’s What You Can Do About It

  • If you hunt, consider switching from lead-based ammunition to copper-based.
  • When field dressing an animal, if you have used lead-based ammunition, take some time to bury the gut pile or just cover it with some brush. Making it harder for birds to find can prevent them from feasting on lead particles.
  • If you enjoy fishing, avoid lead-based tackle. If you do use lead-based tackle, take extra care not to leave any of it behind.
  • If you have friends or family who love to hunt and fish, buy non-lead ammunition or tackle as gifts for them. You might inspire a permanent switch!
  • Become informed on this issue, so you can explain it to others and encourage them to change their habits.
  • Replacing the ammunition and tackle you use has been an expensive proposition in the past. But as the demand has increased, the cost differential has gone down.
  • “And if there is a few dollars’ difference,” said Ed Clark, president and co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, “honestly, what is the life of a bald eagle worth to you?”