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Lead and the Dangers it Poses to Birds

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Right: Adult Bald Eagle Left: Breeding Adult Common Loon

Hunters and wildlife specialists have many different views. One that is hotly debated is whether or not to keep lead in hunting ammunition and fishing gear. Lead is extremely harmful to all wildlife and humans; it has taken the lives of many Common Loons who swallow stones to help the digestion of the fish that they eat. Lead is one of the main reasons why Common Loons are becoming harder to find up on the Great lakes. While most people say to ban leaded ammunition, the hunters think that non-leaded shot is one too expensive and not as effective as lead shot when hunting. However, hunters are banned from using lead shot to hunt waterfowl. Some hunters use leaded shot but after they hunt they toss the entrails with lead fragments embedded in them out for birds such as Bald Eagles to eat. They think they are providing food for them in the winter but in reality they are providing them with poison.

Common Loons and Bald Eagles are two of the many birds that are affected by lead poisoning. “[Common] Loons require clear, clean lakes and they are harmed by pollution, development, and disturbances: all of which caused loon populations to crash in the southern portion of their range in the early to mid-20th century.” writes Lauren Chambliss in the article “A Leaded Weight On Loon Recovery” in the LivingBird, Issue 3, of summer 2018 (Chambliss, 2018, pp. 42). Loons are torpedo-shaped birds that breed in Canada and are specialized for diving to catch fish at high speeds underwater. To help aid the process of digestion, Common Loons eat small rocks they find at the bottom of lakes to grind the bones of the fish. Unfortunately, jigs and sinkers from fishing tackle sometimes are mistaken for small rocks and are eaten by the loons. The result of eating of the lead jigs and sinkers is lead poisoning. This ensures the sad fate of the loon which will die from lead getting into the bloodstream and then into the vital organs. Certain states have banned leaded ammunition entirely, however, most have only banned leaded ammunition from waterfowl hunting. Over 40% of loon deaths are caused by lead poisoning and if we continue to use lead then the Common Loon and other birds like the Bald Eagle might disappear all together. The Director and Senior Biologist of the Loon Preservation Committee, Harry S. Vogel, expects that “it will take many more years before loon populations in New Hampshire no longer exhibit the effects of lead poisoning. 'These aren't turkeys or ducks,' says Vogel. 'Loons are long-lived, they reproduce slowly, they don't breed until they are 6 to 7 years old, and pairs are lucky to fledge half a chick per year. To maintain a viable population, we must keep adults alive. Lead is the largest know cause of mortality in adult loons in New Hampshire, and that's within our power to change.'" (Chambliss, 2018, pp. 47). If we can promote non-leaded jigs, sinkers, and shots then the slow breeding loons might have a chance of recovery.

It is within our power to change from using leaded ammunition to using non-leaded ammunition, but some hunters do not want to make the change. The author of “Minnesota’s lead-ammo ban sparks hunters’ fiery debates”, Dave Orrick, writes "Lead has been banned from waterfowl hunting in Minnesota since 1987, but some birds continue to die from ingesting lead shot fired by hunters in the grasslands and potholes of the prairie region, numerous scientific studies have confirmed." (Orrick, 2016). Some hunters choose to deny the fact that scientific studies have shown birds dying from the lead they ingest when they eat carcasses that have been killed with leaded ammunition. When a bullet with a lead core enters an animal, such as a deer, it fractures, especially when it hits a bone. If an eagle or condor eats just one of these fragments, then it will succumb to death because of the lead in its vital organs. Hunters say that non-leaded shot is too expensive and is not as effective and will cause unnecessary wounds as leaded shot. They also say that the need is not scientifically proven and hunters will quit or not even start. Minnesota, whose state bird is the Common Loon, has tried to ban lead but the ban was overturned. If hunters looked around at all the birds and other wildlife affected by lead then switched to using the non-leaded shot, they would save many birds from a terrible death by lead poisoning. Even if an act banning lead isn’t passed, hunters can still switch to the more expensive yet less harmful choice of shot.

Some hunters leave the entrails from their quarry out in their yard for the birds, such as Bald Eagles and in California, California Condors, to come and eat. "The hunters, for their part, think they’re doing a bit of good, too, by providing food for the birds in winter. Everyone involved admires the eagles and wouldn’t think of poisoning them." writes the author of “Get the Lead Out: The Poisoning Threat From Tainted Hunting…” Matthew L. Miller (Miller, 2009). The hunters certainly think they are doing some good but they are actually harming the birds, not helping them. If the game has been shot with a bullet with a lead core, the game now has fragments of lead in its body. This occurs when the bullet enters the body and shatters into small pieces, especially when it hits a bone. Eagles and other scavengers ingest the fragments. "Lead stays in the blood for only two weeks, making it easy to verify how recently it was ingested. It’s important to note that lead ingestion is a cumulative problem. After being mobilized in the blood, lead is deposited in soft tissue for three months. From there, it moves into bone, marrow, and brain, where it remains for the rest of the bird’s (or other organism’s) life." writes Miller (Miller, 2009). Lead poisoning can paralyze the bird which renders it incapable of eating or drinking. If the bird is paralyzed then it will die of starvation a few days later. This is definitely not what we want to happen. Miller writes that "Eighty-two of the 115 Bald Eagles brought to Iowa wildlife rehabilitators since 2004 have been tested for the presence of lead; of those, 62 contained abnormally high lead levels in their blood, liver, or bone." (Miller, 2009). We may not be able to ban lead entirely but if hunters who use leaded ammunition dispose of the entrails instead of leaving it out for the birds to eat then we may see the numbers of lead poisoned birds drop. Using the “Get the Lead Out: The Poisoning Threat From Tainted Hunting…” article was good as a primary source because it contained quite a bit of information that didn’t fit in this paper. It did have limits as to what it was about. However, it did not include charts as to how many eagles were being killed by use of lead poisoning like the article about lead poisoning and how it affects loons did. Even though it did not have a chart it did have lots of information about lead fragments and how it affects other birds.

Lead is harmful to birds like the Bald Eagle and Common Loon who can become seriously ill and die from lead poisoning. Common Loons ingest lead sinkers when they are really looking for rocks to help grind the bones of the fish they swallowed. Now over 40% of loon deaths are caused by lead poisoning. Most people want to ban leaded ammunition but hunters say that non-leaded shot is too expensive and that it creates unnecessary wounds on their game. Hunters are banned from using leaded shot to hunt waterfowl but lead is still affecting the scavengers. Some hunters leave the entrails of their quarry for the eagles to come and eat. Little do they know that little fragments of lead are in the entrails and when they are digested by the eagles the fragments get into the bloodstream and then into vital organs where they remain for the rest of the bird's life. We can prevent lead poisoning by promoting the use of non-leaded shots, sinkers, and jigs.

Works Cited

Chambliss, Lauren. “A Leaded Weight On Loon Recovery.” LivingBird,

Summer 2018, pp. 42-47.

Miller, Matthew L., (2009, October 15) “Get the Lead Out: The Poisoning Threat From Tainted

Hunting…” All About Birds

Orrick, David., (2016, February 21) “Minnesota’s lead-ammo ban sparks hunters’ fiery debates.”

Twin Cities Pioneer Press

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