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Search and Rescue for Lead-Poisoned Swans

In Northwest Washington, a group of scientists and volunteers are searching for sick swans and trying to save them before it’s too late.

February 3, 2017

This is the second part in our series on wildlife and lead ammunition. Read part one here.

It was a typical phone call for Martha Jordan. Someone had found a sickly-looking swan; Jordan had better come collect the body.

When she arrived on scene, an elegant white bird with a black beak,  a symbol of grace and beauty, lay draped across the tall grass at the edge of a lake. Jordan trudged through the marsh, scooped up its emaciated, 10-pound body and cradled the dead bird in her arms.

That’s when she spotted a second swan.

“It wasn’t totally abnormal to see two of them,” she said, recalling the January 2015 incident. “When I saw a third one, I had a feeling something wasn’t right.”

Daniel Zimmerman is a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He is pictured here patrolling Judson Lake on the border with British Columbia for trumpeter swans that need treatment for lead poisoning. Ken Christensen, KCTS9/EarthFix
A former wildlife biologist, Jordan’s intuition proved correct. Over the next month she discovered more than 50 dead swans in Western Washington’s rural King County.

For Jordan and a small coalition of scientists and volunteers, the event marked an extreme case of something that happens across the region each winter. As their Alaskan breeding grounds freeze over, trumpeter swans fly south in search of food in the Pacific Northwest and other North American wintering grounds. But according to wildlife officials, hundreds of these birds don’t make the return flight each year because they die eating something they shouldn’t: lead hunting ammunition.

“They’re dying a horrible death,” said Jordan, the founder and executive director of the Northwest Swan Conservation Association.

Jordan has been working with swans since the 1970s, but lead poisonings didn’t get on local scientists' radar until two decades later. After centuries in circulation, lead hunting ammunition had collected at the bottom of Judson Lake, a popular swan hangout on Washington’s border with Canada. Like other waterfowl that eat small stones to aid digestion, the swans had begun gulping down toxic pellets by mistake.

They’re dying a horrible death.

Scientists spent years scaring the birds off with lasers and inflatable boats, and later installed bamboo poles to prevent the birds from landing on the lake. Death rates fell by 80 percent, wildlife officials say.

But since then other toxic “hot spots” have popped up, and efforts to track sources of the lead haven’t succeeded. During the 2015 die-off in King County — 120 miles from Judson Lake — one swan’s digestive tract contained more than 600 shotgun pellets. Half of them were made of lead.

“There’s only so much you can do to help them," said Daniel Zimmerman, a biologist with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The lead is all over."

A juvenile trumpeter swan, or cygnet, awaits a necropsy that will determine its cause of death. Every year hundreds of swans, the largest waterfowl in North America, die of lead ingestion. Ken Christensen

Zimmerman focuses his swan recovery efforts in Skagit and Whatcom counties, the northwest corner of Washington state. Like Jordan, he searches for sick swans in common roosting areas, using a motor boat and a six-foot-long net to capture them for rehab.

Last year, the Whatcom Wildife Rehabilitation Center alone received a record 120 lead-poisoned swans, up from an average of 15 birds a year previously. Most of the swans have too much lead in their systems to be saved.

“It’s a sad time of year, but it’s worth it even if we can save one patient,” Alysha Elsby, the clinic’s lead rehabilitator, said.

It takes two months to remove the lead from a swan’s body. Elsby feeds and medicates the birds twice a day.

She expects her workload to increase. Once bordering extinction, the swan population has been rising in North America — reaching record levels in Western Washington this winter — and so has the stockpile of lead in the environment.

Despite a quarter-century-old federal ban on lead shot in waterfowl hunting, hunting with lead shot is legal under many other circumstances across the country.

Today as many as 20 million animals die from ingesting lead shot, fragments, or other animals contaminated with lead ammunition poisoning across the country each year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Victims include upland game species like doves, pheasants, quail and turkey — which also need grit for digestion — and scavengers like bald eagles and condors.

“Other patients come through the door suffering from lead toxicity all the time,” Elsby said.

Elsby hopes efforts to extend the lead ammunition ban in Washington state can capitalize on momentum elsewhere in the country.

In January, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service ordered a ban on lead-based ammunition on national wildlife refuges and Fish And Wildlife Service lands.

In California, where lead poisoning is thought to be the leading cause of death in endangered California condor populations, a statewide ban will begin in 2019.

Hunting groups say existing regulations, including a ban that has covered the historic range of the California condor since 2009, have been ineffective at slowing lead-related deaths. Non-toxic ammunition also costs more than lead shot, they say.

Lead shot from a shotgun cartridge.  Ken Christensen, KCTS9/EarthFixWildlife advocates, however, say the hunting community is passing those costs onto the public. In Washington, Puget Sound Energy helps foot the bill for swan rescue efforts because lead-poisoned birds often strike powerlines, causing up to $50,000 in damage per accident.

“Lead birds cost money,” said Mel Walters, who runs the utility’s avian protection program.

It has taken a toll on Jordan, too. She doesn’t expect a local lead ban to pass anytime soon. But she wonders what would happen if, next time someone finds a sick swan, she doesn’t answer her phone.

“If you start leaving dead swans around, people get really upset,” she said.


At the Whatcom Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, swans undergo twice-daily feedings and lead treatments for two months.

Ken Christensen

Ken Christensen

Ken Christensen is the EarthFix associate video producer for KCTS 9, the public television station in Seattle. He began his journalism career at Crain’s New York Business, a weekly newspaper covering business and politics in the five boroughs, where he reported breaking news and wrote features on small business. Ken later helped launch the publication’s web video unit as its first producer. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

More stories by Ken Christensen