Lead Poisoning In Birds

The Bald Eagle, symbol of our country, California Condors and other birds that eat carrion are being poisoned with lead, even as you read this. Incredibly, human beings who consume game meat are susceptible to lead poisoning as well, though this is less well documented and less well known.

The problem of lead poisoning of wildlife has been occurring for years, as long as lead ammunition for hunting has been used. When hunters field dress an animal and leave the gut pile in the woods, it becomes free food for wildlife. When an animal is wounded and escapes but later dies, it too becomes free food. However in both cases the free meals can be contaminated with lead, a deadly poison. We now have evidence that the blood level of lead in eagles increases to critical levels in the hunting season as a result of this interaction.

Hunters and their families and friends may be consuming lead as well: ground game meat has been shown upon Xray to contain many tiny particles of lead, too small to be detected when consumed, but deadly none the less. In humans lead-poisoning can have a number of different outcomes, none of them good.

These findings exist across many states, wherever lead is used in hunting ammunition. The harmful outcomes of using lead bullets are the result of the softness of lead. It is easily malleable and disintegrates of upon impact. Many small pieces travel through bone and flesh of an animal up to several feet, contaminating the meat, without any obvious sign. Only an Xray demonstrates the presence of these tiny bits of poison. Because ammunition has traditionally been made of lead, and often at home where it is easily melted, the use of lead bullets has become ingrained in our society.

Change is always slow, but not impossible. In 1991 the US Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting because of its impacts on waterfowl populations.

Education about the use of a bullets made of a different metal is the answer. Copper ammunition has been on the market for a while and has been found to be even more accurate than lead ammunition. What keeps hunters from using it? Only lack of knowledge, habit, and a small increase in price, possibly 25 cents more per bullet. Every hunter’s goal is to bring down game with one shot. The use of one copper bullet is a small price to pay for the life of a Bald Eagle or California Condor or the health of one’s children.

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