Lead Poisoning in Birds

Cook Forest Conservancy - Lead Poisoning in Eagles from Ammunition

Bald and golden eagles prefer fish, but are opportunistic foragers that scavenge when practical. In most areas, eagles have access to food sources with expended lead bullets – field-shot pest species, offal piles, non-recovered game, and weakened, contaminated live prey. 

Deer pits across the Game Commission’s State Game Lands provide a regular source of food for scavenging eagles.  Hunting season falls in autumn and winter, when scavenging for food becomes more important – and lead poisoning victim numbers spike.

Between 2006 and 2016, lead poisoning was found in one-third of 228 eagles from across Pennsylvania – 30% had detectable levels of heavy metals in their liver.  While the specimens died variously from trauma by car, train, and gunshot (also electrocution and infection), the examined animals mostly accumulated the lead levels as a result of scavenging.  Lead poisoning destroys the nervous system.  If it doesn’t kill the bird outright, the lead poisoning renders it too weak and disoriented to either hunt for food, or protect itself from predators and threats.

One simple way to reduce lead toxicity in eagles and other wildlife is to use non-lead ammunition.

Both performance and cost of non-lead ammunition is comparable to lead counterparts. The PA Game Commission advocates the use of non-lead ammunition to hunters, and it’s safer for people, too, since the lead can’t fragment or leach into game meat. Please ask your local supplier to stock non-lead ammo 🙂

Centre Wildlife Care - tube-feeding lead poisoned eagle
Centre Wildlife Care volunteers tube-feeding a Bald Eagle suffering from lead poisoning

From Centre Wildlife Care:

Since 2013, when we got our blood lead machine, all of the bald eagles that we have taken in have had some level of lead in their blood. Most have needed chelation therapy to remove the lead from the system, plus antibiotics, tube feeding, and months of rehabilitation before they could be released. Some were too sick to save from the lead toxicity/ trauma and died.

We have also seen lead poisoning in hawks, eagles, vultures, crows, gulls, ducks, geese, swans, loons and grebes.

For more information, and to find non-lead ammo, contact: