Lead Poisoning of Waterfowl

What Does It Take?

It has been years since waterfowl hunters were forced to give up lead shot and use steel. The reason we were told was because of the harm that lead does to waterfowl. Some of us may have wondered just how much lead do waterfowl have to eat in order to cause them a problem. Well, the recent death of some trumpeter swans will give you the shocking answer — only one or two lead pellets are enough to kill a swan, according to Washington State WDFW wildlife managers.

Even if the exposure isn't fatal it can weaken birds and cause them to succumb to other ailments such as aspergillosis, a lung ailment caused by a fungus present on decaying corn and other grain.

More than 60 trumpeter swans found dead in the last few weeks northeast of Bellingham appear to have succumbed to lead poisoning, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) wildlife biologists. Although the source of the lead has not been confirmed, the swans may have been poisoned by ingesting lead shotgun pellets that came to rest on lake bottoms and the ground, said Lora Leschner, regional wildlife manager in WDFW's North Puget Sound regional office in Mill Creek.

The dead swans are being collected promptly so that bald eagles do not feed on the swan carcasses and suffer secondary poisoning. Volunteers and wildlife rehabilitators are working with WDFW to recover the dead swans.

Lead shot has been illegal for waterfowl hunting in western Washington since 1986 and nationally since 1991. Lead shot still is legal for use by upland bird hunters throughout the state, however. Although no connection has been established between the use of lead shot by state upland bird hunters and the recent swan deaths, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission already was scheduled to decide in its April 7 and 8 meeting in Yakima whether to phase out the use of lead shot on pheasant release sites where waterfowl are present in significant numbers, to restrict lead only on release sites where problems are documented, or to leave the current regulations in place.

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