Washington Swan Stewards

Washington Swan Stewards

Lead Poisoning


TTSS recognizes that lead is a potent toxic substance and hazardous to wildlife and human health when scattered into our environment.

Trumpeter Swans are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. In Washington State alone, over 2,300 trumpeters have needlessly suffered and died in recent years after swallowing lead as they fed in fields and wetlands.

TTSS urges the rapid end to the use of this toxic substance in all hunting, other shooting activities, and fishing and conversion to the use of alternative non-toxic substances.

We urge all who value wildlife to unite in this effort to end this needless poisoning.

— TTSS Board of Directors, April 20, 2008

Dead swans laid out for necropsy. Photo by M. Jordan.

Since 1999, lead shot has killed over 2,300 wintering swans in Washington state and British Columbia. TTSS has been working hard with the Canadian Wildlife Service, The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, other nonprofit organizations, and concerned citizens to find the source of the lead shot, so that it can be cleaned up. TTSS is helping to support the work by fundraising, helping to develop research and management strategies, recruiting volunteers, and providing equipment. After 10 deadly winters, progress has been made and the source of some, but not all, of the lead shot that is killing so many swans has been determined.


In late December 1999, Trumpeter Swans began dying in large numbers from lead poisoning in north Whatcom County, Washington, and over the border in Sumas Valley, British Columbia, The deaths continued to increase over the next several years with a peak of nearly 400 dying in 2005. A similar, but much smaller die-off occurred in 1993 in this same area. It is unclear why 7 years passed before this poisoning reoccurred or why the problem became so much more severe during the past decade.

As of late April 2009, the total documented mortality since 1999 of about 2,300 swans included about 97% Trumpeter Swans and a few Tundra Swans. Most of the birds have been picked up dead or dying on the ponds that they use for night roosts in the U. S. and, to a lesser extent, in Canada. There is no way to estimate the number of additional dead birds that have escaped detection in the wintering grounds or that may have died as they tried to migrate north in the spring.

The swans die after swallowing lead shot pellets while feeding. One of the primary sources of lead shot is at Judson Lake, which straddles the border between Whatcom County, Washington and Sumas Prairie area, British Columbia. This lake was a substantial night roost for swans for many years. In the past, lead shot was deposited when it was legal to use it for waterfowl hunting and many decades ago was used for trap shooting. Studies have shown that portions of this lake still have substantial amounts of lead shot that is available for feeding swans to ingest.

One of the strategies that has proven successful to reduce mortality from lead poisoning is hazing swans off Judson Lake from late October through late January. This is done with cracker shells, laser lights and an air boat. Hazing has resulted in a relatively large (50%+) reduction in the number of swans dying from lead shot ingestion. Judson Lake has also been part of a broader discussion regarding its stressed ecological condition; hence, this roost site is an obvious candidate for long-term restoration. Environment Canada - Canadian Wildlife Service, British Columbia Ministry of Environment, and Ducks Unlimited Canada have agreed to consider the ecological condition of the lake, and develop options to address long-term habitat management goals at the lake. In 2008/2009, hazing of Judson Lake continued and medium-term mitigation strategies to prevent swans from accessing lead at the lake are being investigated. Effective alternate strategies would then be undertaken until long-term measures can be implemented. However, the ability of the working group to provide support for the project will be contingent on funding.

The die-off has now occurred for 10 consecutive winters and swan distribution has changed. As the swans disperse into new wintering areas, the geographical area where they are picking up lead shot and subsequently dying has increased. Swans are now dying in Skagit, Snohomish and King counties, directly south of Whatcom County. During winter 2008-09, about 150 dead Trumpeters were picked up with lead poisoning in this larger geographical area; most of the deaths were in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

Our primary goal to very substantially reduce the swan mortalities due to ingestion of lead shot.

TTSS volunteers have assisted with winter swan surveys from the air and ground, radio tracked collared swans, and picked up sick and dead swans. For several years, TTSS also helped coordinate a massive effort in late spring to necropsy the hundreds of dead swans so that the characteristics of the lead could be determined. Necropsies are now done throughout the winter season by WDFW.

To learn more about the research effort see the 2008-2009 Progress Report from the Swan Lead Poisoning Team.

Volunteer picking up two very sick swans from icy Shadow Lake night roost. Photo by: Martha Jordan.


Each time a shotgun is fired, depending on the shot shell size and load, from 200 to over 400 pellets fall to the ground where most remain available to feeding birds. Although lead is no longer legal for waterfowl hunting, the lead pellets can remain available to the birds for many years. Lead shot is still being deposited into some swan feeding areas because in many areas it remains legal for use in upland bird hunting, sporting dog training and off established shooting ranges for target/trap shooting.

The Swans pick up the lead shot when they are feeding or seeking grit (small stones) in wetlands or in agricultural fields. They swallow the pellets, which are the same general size as the grit which they need to aid in the grinding of food in their gizzards. Lead shot pellets are the same general size as the grit that ducks, geese, mourning doves, chukar and many other species of birds are known to ingest while searching for grit and subsequently die.


There are two types of lead poisoning - primary and secondary. Primary lead poisoning occurs with the direct ingestion of lead shot either as food or while searching for grit. This is how swans and other waterfowl obtain lead shot. Eagles and other predatory or scavenging birds also suffer primary lead poisoning by consuming lead shot and bullets embedded in tissues of game animals killed or wounded with lead ammunition. Secondary lead poisoning occurs when predators such as eagles or other raptors eat the contaminated tissues of birds that have died from lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning results after food is ground against the grit and lead shot in the bird's gizzard. Lead is a soft metal which gets ground down easily and then is taken into the blood stream. Lead affects the central nervous system. Classic signs of lead poisoning in swans are severe weight loss from paralysis of the digestive system, green staining around the vent area, and general weakness with an inability to hold up the wings. The swan usually dies of starvation because it can no longer digest food. Sometimes the birds can survive if the lead breakdown process is slow and only 1 or 2 pellets have been ingested. Other times, if they eat corn for example, the grain is hard and the lead is ground down more quickly, thus resulting in a high release of lead into their blood stream.

Depending on what food a swan eats, as few as 3 to 4 ingested lead pellets can cause death. Over 300 of the dead swans that were examined in recent winters contained more than 30 pellets in their gizzards. Over 50 swans contained more than 100 lead pellets.

Lead shot ingestion can also result in elevated blood levels without causing immediate death on the wintering grounds. However, the lead in the body tissues can reduce the ability of these swans to survive migration or reproduce successfully. Research in recent winters showed that approximately 30% of our Trumpeter Swans in this area have elevated lead levels although they did not show any obvious symptoms of lead toxicity when examined.

Swans spend their winter days feeding in agricultural fields or adjacent wetlands and then go to night roosts, typically a lake, slough or estuary. Swans fly into the night roosts, and do not leave the roost the next day if they feel ill. The birds get weaker and often die at the roost site, even though they may have swallowed the lead miles away. The length of time it takes a swan to die from lead poisoning varies with diet and the amount of lead shot ingested. Usually death occurs 5 to 21 days after ingesting the lead.


Problems with the use of lead shot had been known since the 1950s but extensive testing during the 1970s and 1980s proved how significant the problem was for waterfowl and other birds. This knowledge resulted in the phasing out of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1986 to 1991. However, in many areas the use of lead remains legal for most other forms of hunting and shooting activities. All lead ammunition is toxic to wildlife and the environment. This includes lead shot, lead slugs for shotguns and bullets.

The use of lead ammunition remains one of the most significant sources of lead deposition into the environment while other sources of lead from industry, paints, and gasoline continue to decrease. For example, a national ban of lead shot in Canada would reduce the amount of lead released into the environment by more than 800 tons annually and in the U. S. the amount of reduction would be much more. Lead deposited on our lands can leach into the soil and water. Also, lead deposited directly into waterways from hunting or trap shooting may further contaminate soils downstream. The replacement of toxic lead shot by NON-TOXIC AMMUNITION will help conserve the health of our bird populations and their habitats for everyone to enjoy.


Ammunition made from other metals or combination of metals is available and has been shown to have minimal to no toxicity on wildlife. Research to develop better ammunition that will work as well as lead and be benign to the environment and wildlife is on-going.

Several non-toxic alternatives have been developed and approved for use, including bismuth shot, tungsten-matrix shot, steel shot, tungsten-iron shot, tin shot, tungsten-polymer shot. At this time, many of these alternatives are more expensive than lead, although the cost is coming down and the difference in price for some shot is minimal.

The cost to work with lead poisoned wildlife and the deaths of non-target species including swans, raptors, and others is substantial. It is time for the public to stop allowing hunting with lead at the cost of our environmental health and wildlife resources.


  • If you choose to hunt, please use non-toxic ammunition. Tell the store why you are buying non-toxic shot and urge them to promote its use.
  • If you allow hunters to use your land, require them to use only non-toxic shot on your property.
  • Post your land proudly "This is a lead-free hunting area!" You can help prevent future poisoning and help educate the public at the same time.
  • ALSO, join the Adopt a Swan program to help fund research including monitoring of swans, soil sampling at night roosts for lead pellets and other data collection so that the primary sources of the lead that is killing so many swans can be found and removed.
  • The Trumpeter Swan Society is also working on a campaign to "Get The Lead Out!" through education of the public and hunters about the lead shot issues and to gain support to encourage all lead shot users to voluntarily switch to non-toxic shot. Voluntarily switching to non-toxic shot is something we all can do - without wasting one more day - to help reduce the needless deaths of swans and other wildlife.
  • Write a letter: Let your political leaders know that this is an important issue and that funding to stop the lead poisoning is a priority need. Depending on where you reside, write to your state, federal or provincial leaders and urge them to support funding for the 2009-2010 winter season of hazing at Judson Lake. The plan for keeping swans off Judson Lake has turned from research to management action. This year's plan is to work with a method for keeping swans off the lake that will result in a very substantial reduction in costs that will continue until lake restoration efforts can be completed.


Non-toxic shot has been required for all waterfowl hunting in the United States since 1991 and in Canada since 1999.

Regulations vary from state to state and province to province relating to lead shot use for other forms of hunting and shooting sports. Please check with your local wildlife agency for current regulations. Remember, even where lead is legal, you can help end the poisoning by voluntarily choosing to use non-toxic shot.

Washington State has been a leader in "Getting the Lead Out" of bird and small game hunting. Many other states have similar restrictions as well. In April 2009, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted statewide hunting seasons and regulations that include new restrictions on toxic lead shot. The Commission, which sets policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), adopted the new three-year hunting plan after nearly eight months of public comment and review. As part of that process, WDFW wildlife managers conducted public meetings around the state and contacted more than 50,000 licensed hunters by e-mail to solicit their ideas on various management options under consideration.

Under one new policy approved by the commission, WDFW will phase in an expansion of state restrictions on the use of lead shot. Noting that toxic shot has been banned in hunting waterfowl since 1991, WDFW has been expanding that prohibition to other hunts around the state. New this year, hunters will be required to use non-toxic shot when hunting upland game birds or mourning doves in three units of the Sunnyside-Snake River Wildlife Area, where ingestion of lead shot by wildlife is of particular concern. In 2011, the non-toxic shot requirement will be expanded to all established WDFW pheasant-release sites.

NON-HUNTING ACTIVITIES: There are few regulations on ammunition type used for non-hunting activities such as trap or target shooting, sporting dog training and hunt tests or field trials. Lead shot is often used in these activities, even in areas where waterfowl subsequently feed!

There is one federal regulation relating to permits for holding, transferring and killing of captive bred mallards specifically used in sporting dog training or field trial activities (CFR 50 Chapter 1 Part 21.13). Item 4 (d) begins with "When so marked, such live birds may be killed, in any number, at any time or place, by any means except shooting. Such birds may be killed by shooting only in accordance with all applicable hunting regulations governing the taking of mallard ducks from the wild:" This means that only nontoxic shot may be used when captive bred mallards are shot for dog training or trialing or hunt test purposes anywhere and anytime.

Each state has different rules for the use of lead and nontoxic shot for hunting and other shooting sports. Please contact your local wildlife agency for details in your area.


WDFW The Use of Nontoxic Shot for Hunting in Washington

Proceedings from Conference, "Ingestion of Lead from Spent Ammunition: Implications for Wildlife and Humans"
This conference brought together professionals in wildlife and human health to share information on the toxic effects of spent lead ammunition.

Fish and Wildlife Issues Related to the Use of Lead Fishing Gear

For more information on lead shot and lead poisoning in wildlife the Canadian Wildlife Services website and review Occasional Paper 88 on lead shot and fishing sinkers, and also Occasional Paper 108 on fishing sinkers.

See what the State of Minnesota is doing to educate the public about the dangers of lead fishing tackle to swans, loons, and eagles. Click here to learn about their Let's Get the Lead Out! campaign.

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Please send to: ttss@trumpeterswansociety.org

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