In addition to pesticides, toxics like the heavy metal lead (Pb) continue to be a widespread threat, affecting birds from from Golden Eagles and California Condors to waterfowl.
Lead Still Used in Ammunition
For hundreds of years, lead was used as an additive in paint, gasoline, pipes, and other materials. Citing lead’s extreme health risks to humans, especially children, in 1977, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead paint in residential and public buildings as well as in toys and furniture. In 1996, it was banned from use in gasoline.
Unfortunately, the use of lead in bullets and shotgun pellets continues to provide a pathway for lead poisoning in humans and wildlife, including Golden Eagles, hawks, and condors.
An estimated 16 million birds are poisoned by lead every year. Some birds, like Bald Eagles, accidentally ingest lead shotgun pellets and ammunition fragments when scavenging on carcasses or remains left by hunters.
Other birds such as Mourning Doves mistake spent shot for seed in fields and forests, while diving birds like Common Loons swallow lead fishing tackle while foraging on lake bottoms.
Lead bullet fragments or residues in game meat also pose a significant risk to hunters and their families. For more information see huntingwithnonlead.org.
Perhaps the most iconic example of the impact lead toxicity can have on a species’ population is that of the California Condor.
As of 2019, 500 California Condors remain after numbers had dipped as low as 22 in 1987 due in part to lead poisoning caused by eating animal carcasses containing lead shot.
A 2012 study found that two-thirds of California Condor deaths were caused by lead poisoning. To this day, between 45 and 95 percent of the condor population tests positive for lead exposure. In response, California passed a law that will phase out the use of lead ammunition for any hunting purpose by July 1, 2019.
California’s phase out has been successful, and a number of States such as Missouri have taken action to protect wildlife management areas from toxic ammunition.
The United States military has been converting to non-lead versions of some bullets, removing thousands of tons of lead from the environment.
We encourage the hunting and fishing communities to follow the military’s lead and to switch to non-lead alternatives as well.
Non-lead options, such as copper, tin, and tungsten, are readily available; the more these products are used, the more affordable and widely accepted they will become.
American Bird Conservancy Blogs
By Nicholas Lapham
As an ABC Board member…
Red-tailed Hawks are some of the many birds that can be poisoned and killed by lead ammunition used in hunting. This problem is easily solved by switching to non-lead alternatives.