To a trumpeter swan, lead shot looks like tiny stones. Swans ingest stones to help break down food in their gizzards. Unfortunately, lead poisoning leads to death.
Martha Jordan, Washington Swan Stewards coordinator, has fought for trumpeter swans’ lives for decades. Steady progress has been made. Management techniques have been somewhat successful at saving swan lives. The population is holding its own.
Yet more than 50 swans recently died in the Carnation-Fall City-area of King County.
“It was a sudden and cataclysmic die-off. We’ve been picking up (swans) since Jan. 21. On Feb. 28, we found 28 bodies. There were lots of feather piles. It was chaos,” Jordan said.
X-rays showed a lot of metal in their gizzards and the swans showed symptoms of lead poison. The deformed fragments were consistent with lead shot, but that has not yet been confirmed by necropsy.
Despite occasional setbacks and future hurdles, Jordan takes the long view, tackling the issue “one rung at a time,” stressing the power of education, and working with the glacial pace of change.
Lead shot has been illegal nationwide for waterfowl for years.
“We found that 99.9 percent of the people we talked to during the die-off think lead shot has been banned for all uses,” Jordan said. “That’s absolutely not true. There are many places in Washington state that allow lead shot for upland bird hunting, upland bird-dog training and clay-target shooting, all of which can occur over the same grounds used by waterfowl.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife bans lead shot for use on all pheasant-release and hunting sites. Lead shot is still legal on private land for upland birds, small animals and target shooting.
It’s a scenario that may have contributed to the deaths. The number of sick swans, dead bodies and feather piles indicated the die-off was local. It’s an area where flooding often happens and where lead shot may be used for other uses than waterfowl hunting.
The challenge seems never-ending: clay-target shooting, sometimes over rivers that flood fields, lead shot used by hunters for upland birding, using lead shot while training dogs to retrieve.
“I support the shooting and hunting sports completely,” Jordan said. “The compliance rate is extremely high in this state. Hunters are doing a very good job. And upland hunters are more and more going to non-toxic shot. But we need to be aware that lead shot, no matter where or how you use it, is still lead shot.
“Clay shooting is a fun sport but when you choose to shoot and you’re not on a range with a lead recovery program, it’s a problem. I understand that many people do not want to use the expensive nontoxic shot but it’s really expensive to pick up dead and dying animals, and you expect the rest of us to support your sport,” Jordan said.
For more information, go to www.swansociety.org/wswg/washington.htm.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.