Sick Swan Rescue Spotlights Severity of Lead Poisoning Problem

Beaks and boats recently came to the aid of a young bird made gravely ill by toxic ammunition or fishing tackle.

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“Now, if you notice how the swan, putting its neck down into the deep water, brings up food for itself from below, then you will discover the wisdom of the Creator, in that He gave it a neck longer than its feet for this reason, that it might, as if lowering a sort of fishing line, procure the food hidden in the deep water.” – Saint Basil

The mother swan that saved a cygnet's life.
The mother swan that saved a cygnet’s life. (Photo by Margaret Smith, The Trumpeter Swan Society)

The loving actions of trumpeter swan, the heroic efforts of a couple paddle-powered rescuers, and the medical care of a Minnesota wildlife hospital are calling attention to the trouble that lead fishing tackle and ammunition poses to the birds.

Trumpeter swans have become beloved sights around the St. Croix River during the past two decades. The biggest waterfowl in North America, they are also perhaps the most elegant.

They gather in the winter anywhere there is open water, and can be seen soaring over the river, highways, wetlands, farm fields, and just about anywhere. People love watching them glide on their seven-foot wings and swim in ice-cold waters, and listen to their soft honking, when a bevy sounds like a jazz band.

The fact that swans can be seen and heard at all in St. Croix River country is worthy of celebration. They were gone from Wisconsin for more than 100 years, and nearly extirpated from Minnesota at the same time, driven out by hunting and habitat loss. Starting in the mid-1980s, reintroduction efforts got underway in both states, with eggs collected in Alaska and carefully transported to the region, hatched, and released into the wild.

There are now thousands of pairs living in both states. In 2009, they were removed from Wisconsin’s endangered species list. It’s a major stewardship success story.

Saving a sick swan

A recent episode in Hudson shone a spotlight on the ongoing problem posed to the birds by lead poisoning. Even one piece of lead can kill a 26-pound bird, and the bottoms of the rivers and wetlands where they hang out in the winter are often carpeted with sinkers and shotgun pellets. The birds frequently ingest the toxic metal when they consume pebbles and sand to help aid their digestion.

Hudson is probably the most popular swan spotting site in the river valley. Where the Willow River, via Lake Mallalieu, pours into the St. Croix, 100 to 200 birds congregate for the winter. It’s easy to drive up and watch them from a walking trail on top of the bank.

On Valentine’s Day, a mother swan, surrounded by her four cygnets, pecked at the ice trapping another young bird in the ice. It was not thought to be her offspring, and it was thought to be dead. Eventually, it moved its head and then she freed it from the ice. A group of onlookers, including the executive director of the Minnesota-based Trumpeter Swan Society, Margaret Smith, witnessed the whole thing. The society is a nonprofit that was formed in 1968 and is today involved in issues affecting trumpeter swans across the North American continent.

Smith shared photos and the story:

Saved from death, the swan was still clearly sick. The saga of this cygnet had only begun.

That was Saturday. On Tuesday, a team of volunteer swan wranglers showed up with nets, warm clothes, and two kayaks. Slowly cornering the weak bird, they were able to grab it and deliver it to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota.

The capture was captured on video by Art Juchno:

Andy Rathbun at the Pioneer Press reported on the event and the issue in a thoughtful article:

“Now what we’re here to do is be the human part of the rescue, so the mother swan’s work won’t be in vain,” she said.

As two kayakers began paddling up the mouth of the Willow River, the bird jumped up on the ice and away from the kayakers’ grasp. Wallace and Don Wicklund, of Grantsburg, Wis., approached from the other side with nets, and the bird eventually got back in the water, where it was caught by kayaker Noah Gausman after a short chase.

“All it takes is a real light touch and they stop right there in the water,” said Gausman, who lives in Hudson and has been helping rescue swans since he was a child.

His mother, Mary Wicklund, of Grantsburg, brought the bird up from the riverbank and said it felt “way too light.”

She said she didn’t like the bird’s chances for survival, but “at least we know it’s not suffering anymore — no matter what happens.”

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At the wildlife hospital, x-rays revealed three pieces of lead in the swan’s system, two small ones and a big one. The bird was also infected with parasites and emaciated.

The next day, the hospital posted a cautiously hopeful update, saying that the swan had survived the first night, which was an important step. But the doctors will need to get it strong enough to survive a procedure to flush the pellets out.

Two days later, the center posted another update, saying the bird was very sick. The organization wrote on Friday, "It's still too weak for gastric lavage and isn't standing well. We're hoping it'll gain strength but are concerned about neurological damage as a result of the lead poisoning. Prognosis remains grave but he/she is at least comfortable while gaining weight."

'Achilles Heel'

The whole episode might seem senseless, considering that fishing, hunting, and healthy birds can co-exist with the help of modern materials. There was probably plenty of lead put in the waters before we were aware of the threat, but we know better now – and are still using it. Lead remains what one researcher calls "the Achilles heel" of swan recovery. The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation sees swan deaths as not significant enough to warrant prohibiting the use of lead. Efforts to prohibit lead "are generally not based on sound science, but rather on the emotional assumption that isolated incidents of animals ingesting harmful levels of lead translates to impacts on entire populations," it states in a position paper. The problem, the organization says, is that if the government bans lead, it will cost manufacturers to retrofit their factories. Those costs would ultimately be passed down to consumers, and that might even mean fewer hunters, which would mean fewer dollars for wildlife agencies and outdoor businesses. The group's major funders include outdoor retailers and manufacturers of ammunition and fishing tackle – and wildlife groups including Ducks Unlimited. A leading swan scientist uses similar reasoning as the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation to explain why we ought to be concerned about lead: there is not enough known about the issue to determine if it's a major threat. “We are not aware of any scientific study that demonstrates that swan mortality due to lead poisoning has not caused a population level impact," says John Cornely, Ph.D., retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist and senior conservation advisor to The Trumpeter Swan Society. "Not every swan that dies of lead poisoning is found and analyzed.  This means that the totals we know about comprise a minimum estimate. The total impact is greater than what is observed. Dead swans, as with other wildlife, can be scavenged fairly rapidly and not be discovered.”

Demonstrating the danger

That call to "get the lead out" was recently echoed by a St. Croix Valley hunter and writer – to protect both humans and wildlife. Local outdoors writer Mike Reiter recently sent over an excerpt from a column he wrote two years ago. He shared the results of a demonstration held at the Willow River Gun Club of the differences between lead and copper shot. Shooting into water jugs and paraffin wax, they saw how the ammunition can be bad for the people who eat animals killed with it, as well as wildlife, and how copper performed just as well as lead:
"The comparison between the bullets was dramatic! Along with the lead bullet slugs retrieved intact and showing very good mushrooming, there were hundreds of small lead shards visible to the naked eye. The copper bullets also showed excellent mushrooming with each of the expansion petals intact indicating perfect expansion. No fragmentation was noted with the copper projectiles. The lead bullets produced the same bullet fragments in the wax cylinders and showed a “vapor cloud” that was extremely small lead particles imbedded in the wax. The copper bullet left nothing except the perfectly expanded round."
Reiter points out that we have removed lead from paint, plumbing, gasoline, and other objects to protect lives – especially children – but meat harvested with lead can still contain the poison. He calls lead "the toxin that keeps on giving," because scavengers can eat animals that die of lead poisoning and ingest harmful doses themselves. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says, "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized." Reiter writes that the ammunition demonstration also showed how lead core bullets can contaminate food. "Photos of packaged venison showed lead contamination upon X-ray and whole animal scans detailed lead fragments some distance from the fatal shot’s entry site." Convinced of the problem, the group of hunters left the meeting and tried to buy copper core bullets at hunting stores in the area. They were not successful. "Many of the retailers admitted that none were in stock," he reported.

One is too many

Lead shot and tackle is currently subject to a patchwork of regulations. Starting in 1991, it was banned for hunting waterfowl. It can still be ingested by bald eagles and other birds when they scavenge dead animals that were shot with lead ammunition. There is always a big spike in eagle deaths from lead poisoning in December, when the birds have fed on gut piles left by deer hunters. In Hudson, where the swan was recently sickened, the problem is most likely due to fishing tackle, as the site is in a residential area and hunting has probably not happened there for a long time. There are no regulations prohibiting lead sinkers, jigs, or other weights. Excellent alternatives exist, including tungsten and tin. Reiter closed his column with a call to action."There is an urgent need to address these issues of environmental lead contamination. We need to contact our senators and legislators at both the state and federal levels to make our case to move forward to eliminate lead in both ammunition and fishing tackle." Whether or not one sickened swan is a symptom of a larger population problem, the people who love watching them all winter, and the people who braved the river on a cold February day to rescue, would like them to stay healthy. The birds are graceful, their return to the river is inspiring, and they should be able to live out natural lives with a little help from hunters and anglers.

Update March 3, 2015:

The swan has died. According to the Trumpeter Swan Society, "Sadly, the young cygnet with lead poisoning rescued in Hudson and taken to the wildlife rehabilitation center, died yesterday. The damage to its body's systems from lead was too extensive for it to recover."


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5 responses to “Sick Swan Rescue Spotlights Severity of Lead Poisoning Problem”

  1. Pat Manthey Avatar
    Pat Manthey

    This is the best article on lead poisoning and swan rescue that I have ever seen! The dedicated volunteers, all of whom worked with me on trumpeter restoration, are heroes, as are the rehabilitators..

    I am a retired Wisconsin DNR swan biologist and a former wildlife rehabilitator, I hunt and fish,.
    It’s no sacrifice to use non-lead ammunition and sinkers. The additional cost is minimal and performance is as good or better than with toxic lead., Hunters already use non-lead for waterfowl hunting.

  2. Bill Gausman Avatar
    Bill Gausman

    I totally agree with Pat Manthey. In the 1980s, when I learned about the deaths of eagles that were picking up lead from crippled waterfowl, I switched to steel and never looked back. As a sportsman, I did not want to kill eagles.

    Two years ago, the pair of adult trumpeter swans that nested/raised families on my lake for years were killed by ingesting lead. How many ducks and geese and loons do we lose that are not even counted?

    We should be voluntarily be switching to steel shot for upland. A fast load of #4 steel is the most lethal that I have ever used on pheasants. There is no reason not to use it. Copper bullets for deer hunters cost only about a buck a round more than lead. They are MORE effective! No reason not to seek them out.

    It has galled me that lead-free ice fishing tackle has been so expensive, so I roll my own, casting walleye jigs from bismuth and tin, and using tin plumbers solder to attach tungsten beads to hooks for great panfish jigs.

    We can get the lead out!

    1. Ed Heit Avatar
      Ed Heit

      Had a wonderful deer season, shot a large buck at 125 yds. using a Barnes 30-06 copper bullet. My 2 boys also used the copper bullets, we got 4 deer total. I always butcher my own deer and my old Remington core lock bullets would fragment if it hit a bone, very bad because I always put the carcass out for the birds.
      Ed Heit

  3. […] “Sick Swan rescue spotlights severity of lead-poisoning problem” […]

  4. MJ N Avatar
    MJ N

    Most fascinating articles I’m a Wisconsin native & treasure that area. Thanks, this was well written & informative

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Sick Swan Rescue Spotlights Severity of Lead Poisoning Problem