Think about recent controversies regarding children who have gotten lead poisoning from lead-painted toys. Children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure because of their relatively small size. Now imagine a bald eagle that may weigh a dozen pounds, or a red-tailed hawk that might weigh only two. If so much as a sliver of lead makes it into a raptor’s stomach, it begins to leech into its system, pulling that bird into a toxic morass, making it sick and lethargic, unable to hunt, and thus unable to feed itself. Imagine a life where every single meal you eat depends solely upon your physical perfection to obtain it. Now imagine feeling a constant sickness, a fatigue that comes out of nowhere and only gets worse. And it only has to have a small effect, enough to make you miss that first meal. Now you feel weak and hungry. Without nutrients, your body is even less able to fight back against the poison inside of you; lead seeps into your blood, permeating every part of you, making it harder and harder to even hold your wings aloft, let alone hunt, let alone kill. Your inner organs begin to weaken; you’re losing weight; you’re beginning to starve. You’re nature’s perfect killing machine, but as hard as you try, you can’t catch anything. You’re an animal, a predator, driven by instinct. Instinct tells you to survive. The lead in your belly, the lead in your bloodstream, is like an invisible hand, holding you down while you waste away.
What happens to you? Without treatment, you’re dead. A potent enough dose of lead can be more immediately fatal, though a small amount is just as deadly, only more prolonged. A heart attack can result from either, especially as your body gets ever weaker. The alternative is to struggle on until starvation claims you, or your weakness serves you up as a meal for something else. Liberty Wildlife can and does treat birds with lead poisoning, but successful treatment depends upon finding victims early. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the damage can be undone.
California condors, who stand as the largest birds in North America, are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning; in fact, a 2009 document distributed by the United States Geological Survey cited lead poisoning, via ingested ammunition fragments, as being the primary obstacle keeping the critically endangered condors from making a recovery. The fact that they are dedicated scavengers makes them especially prone to finding lead-infused gut piles, or feeding from bullet-killed deer that were never claimed by their hunters. While a condor’s size gives it some defense against lead’s innate toxicity, it nonetheless suffers a fate that may be even worse than the one just described. Liberty Wildlife has recently played host to a number of California condors brought to us with lead poisoning; most recently, condor 246 from the Grand Canyon died in our care. Lead interferes with their crops, the intermediary sac where swallowed food goes before being moved to the stomach. Their crops cease to function: they can eat all they want, but they can’t make the transition from crop to stomach, and needed digestion. Their bodies tell them they need to eat; hunger gnaws at them. Instinct implores them. But it doesn’t matter how frantically they gorge themselves; a full crop still means an empty belly. And an empty belly means one of the worst kinds of death.
Is removing lead bullets the answer? Yes, in the same way that getting rid of gasoline-burning automobiles would drastically reduce the world’s pollution problem. It takes time for an industry that has spent centuries working around lead to make a wholesale switch to new materials. Obvious answers are seldom easy ones. In the meantime, raising awareness and sharing knowledge are our best methods to keep more birds from dying. We need to remember that the bullets killing these birds weren’t meant for them. Hunters and rehabbers aren’t on opposite sides. We both care for the environment, and we both want to protect it.
This is the second in a three-article series on the effects of lead poisoning in birds of prey. These are the problems. Part one looked at the difficulties facing the ammunition industry in making the switch to something as effective as lead, but safer. Part three will look at the solutions we can all enact in the meantime to save these birds and preserve the wild world we all love.