Lead shot can intoxicate and kill bald eagles

A mature bald eagle holds court over Pepper Creek near Indian River. BY DENNIS FORNEY
January 10, 2014

Author Ernest Hemingway, an avid hunter and fisherman, fervently advocated clean killing. Suffering wasn’t his bag.

He wrote magazine articles detailing exactly where to fire a bullet into the head of a captured shark to guarantee an instant kill. A bullfighting aficionado, he judged matadors by their ability to gracefully and precisely drive their short killing sword into the exact spot between the animal’s shoulder blades to ensure swift death. And he wasn’t a do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do kind of guy.

When mental illness drove him to suicide, the writer nonetheless maintained his clean-killing ethos. According to biographer Carlos Baker, Hemingway blew himself to the other side by simultaneously pulling both triggers of a double-barrel shotgun.

This morbid subject worked its way into my mind this week when Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, Va., wrote me a series of emails in the wake of last week’s column about bald eagles and snowy owls. He enjoyed the information, but the paragraph detailing a couple dozen bald eagles feeding on deer hides in a local field during or just after the shotgun hunting season sparked a concern.

Like Hemingway, Clark is a serious hunter and shooter. The Wildlife Center of Virginia, according to Clark, operates one of the world’s largest wildlife hospitals. “As an avid bald eagle enthusiast, I am hoping that those carcasses do not contain lead from the ammunition that is being used.  Lead poisoning is one of the biggest reasons for the deaths to our nation’s bald eagles. It is an awful, slow and painful death for them, and can be avoided by hunters purchasing lead-free ammunition. Our bald eagle population is growing here in Delaware and if we want to keep it that way, hunters and fishermen too, need to be educated as to what lead poisoning is doing to our wildlife.”

I read Clark’s information with interest. Wildlife officials banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl and other migratory birds many years ago when clear evidence showed the poisoning caused by waterfowl ingesting lead shot pellets. Those pellets seem small, but in fields, rivers and ponds where hunters have hunted and waterfowl have fed for hundreds of years, the cumulative effect resulted in widespread lead poisoning.

But lead from a single shotgun slug being ingested by eagles feeding on deer carcasses or the guts left behind after field dressing? That seemed like a reach to me, and I mentioned it to Clark.

He quickly responded: “I, like you, believed that a single lead projectile posed no threat to eagles or other scavenging wildlife.  However, when I began to research the topic, and when the Wildlife Center of Virginia began to test all eagles we admitted for lead toxicosis, my attitudes changed dramatically,” wrote Clark.

“I do know that lead has been found in the eagles in Delaware, since we work closely with the Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Center. They participated with us in a study of lead toxicosis about two years ago. Here in Virginia, 60 percent of the 42 eagles we admitted in 2012 had lead poisoning as either the primary or secondary cause of hospitalization. Primary poisoning would be the situation where the eagle is too sick to fly after ingesting lead.   Secondary cause of admission would be a situation in which an eagle that is hit by a car, for example, is found to have significant levels of lead in its bloodstream, possibly causing or contributing to the auto collision,” wrote Clark.

A form of intoxication

“Lead poisoning is a form of intoxication, but until recently we did not have the ability to quickly measure levels of lead in the blood. When we got in an eagle that had been hit by a car, or that had struck a power line, we were able to identify the collision as the problem. However, now that we can quickly and easily detect an underlying cause, we are able to better identify the real cause of the collision. Just as in the case of the results of a three-martini lunch, if you drive into a tree and are killed, it isn’t death by tree!”

Clark went on to talk about evidence that lead found in eagles is coming from bullets, shot or slugs. “Yes, we have proof. Especially where buckshot is used for deer hunting, the raw lead pellets are often available to scavengers, and are often seen on x-rays or surgically recovered. In the case of rifle bullets, we often recover fragments of lead and shards of the copper jackets in the same bird. Plus, the incidence of this poisoning tracks with hunting seasons.”

Clark reiterated his credentials as a source and closed with a comment on the politics of hunting and guns:

“I’m a lifelong hunter and shooter.  I’m also a former hunter safety instructor. We used to teach that you are responsible for your bullet from the instant it leaves your gun. Now we need to include the admonition to be responsible for the bullet, even after it stops moving. It is your bullet, and you are responsible for what it kills - intentionally or inadvertently. The best way to keep this issue from being used by the anti-hunting and anti-gun community is for responsible sportsmen to embrace the opportunity to eliminate this environmental threat.”

I have no doubt Hemingway would agree completely.

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