Monday, March 1, 2010

Lead Poisoning

X-ray of a bald eagle showing the distribution of lead possible when a bird is shot 
I love to watch nature shows on TV, especially when they feature birds of prey.  A few weeks ago I saw a wonderful program about Bald Eagles.  I watched intently and played what I call “sponge-brain”, soaking up all of the facts that I could.  I laughed when they showed footage of eagles “skating” along the ice floats.  I have seen eagles on ice numerous times, but still haven’t seen any “skating” for myself.  I keep trying to catch them in the act, though.  Even more memorable than that to me was the footage of something so very tragic that it brought me to tears.  It was of a Bald Eagle that had ingested lead shot from a carcass, and was suffering an agonizing death as it lay helpless in the snow.  Human efforts to save it came too late, but the video will hopefully have the same impact on others as it did for me.  I cannot get the images out of my head, which is what inspired me to write on this topic.  Lead poisoning can be treatable, if caught early enough.  Sadly, and more times than not, once a bird shows signs of the illness and is sick enough to be caught up, it is too late.
 Red Tailed Hawk x-ray.  If another raptor were to devour this carcass, how much lead would it ingest? 
Many well-meaning hunters, and some who are just plain careless, will leave the carcass or gut piles of large game, game birds, small mammals and even fish, and allow “nature to take its course”, as well as spent shot.  Well, that can be okay, unless you are hunting with lead ammunition or using lead weights for fishing.  Lead fragments from a lead rifle bullet can scatter into hundreds of pieces and remain intact in the tissues.  Fragments can be found several inches from the entry wound.  These can be ingested by avian predators and scavengers, such as Bald and Golden Eagles, California condors and red-tailed hawks, leading to their demise.  This is also a problem affecting wild turkey, mourning doves, ring-necked pheasants and northern bobwhite quail.  These birds feed on seeds and sometimes consume spent shot from the ground, as they mistake the shot for small stones used as grit.  In turn, these smaller birds that fall ill from the lead become primary targets for larger birds of prey.  It is an ugly cycle.

Waterfowl, such as Canadian geese, Trumpeter swans and pelicans are far from immune to this issue, as they can consume lead shotgun pellets or lead fishing gear that has settled to the bottom of lakes.  They also consume grit to aid in grinding food, and if there are lead remnants in the mix, there is a good chance that it will be ingested.  Again, this can not only affect the waterfowl themselves, but the bird of prey or other predator that targets the easiest of prey.  Lead shot was banned in 1991 for waterfowl hunting to protect birds of prey, but the problem of lead poisoning still persists.
A pelican who had swallowed hooks and lead weights while feeding 
Another topic close to my heart, which I have written about before, is fishing.  My prior writings dealt with the fact that every time I go fishing, I pick up gear that anglers have left behind, such as lures, line, hooks, etc., that can be a danger to wildlife.  We have had patients at our Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital such as Bald Eagles and pelicans that have become entangled in trot lines and sustained permanent injuries.

My focus here is still lead.  Are you still fishing with lead fishing sinkers or lead jig heads?  Every time your line breaks or a fish runs off with your lure, (I know that never happens to any of us!), you are adding to the risk factor of a water bird or fish ingesting it.  Birds can and will ingest hooks and other tackle as well.  And the circle starts over again. 

Many states are beginning to ban the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle, particularly in National Wildlife Refuges.  The Missouri Department of Conservation banned lead shot in 2007 in certain conservation areas.  The good news is that there are alternatives!  Lead-free bullets, such as copper, (The Barnes X-Bullet), are readily available.  Yes, they cost a little more, but I should hope that the individuals that choose nature as their playground would see that taking responsibility for the environment is definitely a worthy cause.  Sinkers and jigs made from non-poisonous materials like tin or copper are available as well.  Check your tackle boxes.  I am willing to bet that you have several lead sinkers and jigs in there.  If you have any lead tackle, please discard of it properly, such as taking it to your local household hazardous waste collection site. 

There will always be hunters and fishermen (and women!), and that’s fine by me.  I will never give up fishing!  But the difference that I want to try and make is to have more educated hunters and fisherman that will be aware of the dangers of the effects of lead and lead poisoning to our wildlife, and to our environment--what we are desperately trying to save.  I hope that folks will take this to heart, remember this article the next time you gear up, and share this information with the next generation of hunters and anglers.

Submitted by Billie Baumann, World Bird Sanctuary Outreach Coordinator

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