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How Lead Affects Birds

Affects of Lead Poisoning on Birds


Peeling Paint

Old paint chips can be a source of lead contamination.

Kevin Collins

Lead poisoning is one of the most insidious threats to birds of prey, waterfowl and game birds, and it takes very little contamination to lead to illness, debilitation or death. By understanding how lead affects birds, birders can take steps to end this type of horrific environmental contamination.

Sources of Lead Contamination

While lead contamination sources that may easily affect humans have largely been eliminated, there are several sources that continue to pose a threat to birds and other wildlife. Lead in the environment may come from…

  • Fishing tackle, including lead lures and sinkers
  • Bullets and shotgun pellets
  • Paint chips or improperly disposed lead-based paint
  • Discarded batteries
  • Pesticides
  • Mining wastes and byproducts
  • Spills of leaded gasoline
  • Old pennies or other lead materials

Because even a small amount of lead can be highly toxic to the birds, the smallest source of contamination can be a significant threat.

Birds Affected by Lead Contamination

All bird species are at risk from different types of lead poisoning, but certain types of birds have been found to suffer more from the most prominent sources of lead.

  • Waterfowl: Loons, swans, geese and ducks not only may suffer from lead poisoning if they are shot with lead ammunition, but lost or discarded fishing tackle can be inadvertently consumed and lead to poisoning.

  • Birds of Prey: Eagles, vultures and condors are at the greatest risk of lead poisoning, most commonly from ingesting lead-based ammunition from carrion and carcasses left behind by irresponsible hunters.

  • Game Birds: Game birds hunted with lead-based ammunition can suffer from lead poisoning if they are wounded but not killed, and doves and quail may accidentally consume discarded lead shotgun pellets as grit for their digestive system.

How Lead Affects Birds

Lead poisoning can occur slowly or quickly depending on the level of contamination a bird comes into contact with, but without successful medical attention and rehabilitation, a poisoned bird can suffer neurological and physical effects such as:

  • Weight loss and emaciation
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Poor growth and development
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Fewer eggs laid and higher egg mortality

Studies of lead poisoning in humans have noted high levels of pain, disorientation and other effects, and while it is not known if birds suffer the same from lead toxicity, slow lead poisoning is undoubtedly uncomfortable and debilitating. Many lead poisoned birds succumb to predators, and others may be mistaken for illness rather than poisoning because the outward symptoms can be similar to other avian diseases.

How You Can Help

Understanding how lead affects birds is the first step in eliminating this dangerous contaminant from wildlife habitats. Conscientious birders can also take other steps to help keep birds lead-free.

  • Avoid lead fishing tackle or ammunition, and encourage other fishers and hunters to switch to less toxic materials or to be sure and pick up any discarded lead materials.

  • Support laws to restrict the use of lead-based ammunition for all types of hunting and in all areas.

  • Discard lead-based paint properly, including old furniture or other materials that may use lead-based paint.

  • Take precautions to avoid spilling leaded gasoline, and dispose of unused fuel safely and responsibly.

  • Dispose of used batteries safely and consider switching to rechargeable batteries to fully eliminate the risk.

  • Support recovery and rehabilitation programs for birds affected by lead poisoning.

By understanding the sources of lead contamination in the environment, how lead can affect birds and how to help eliminate this toxic threat, all birders can help prevent the decimation of bird populations from lead's dangerous effects.

Photo – Old Paint © Kevin Collins

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