Archived News

New Studies Link Hunting to Lead in Scavenger Birds

April 12, 2011

What's New Image

The following news item was distributed by the University of California, Davis, on April 6, 2011.

Two new UC Davis studies add scientific evidence that hunters' lead ammunition often finds its way into carrion-eating birds, such as eagles and turkey vultures.

These scavenger species often take advantage of animal remains left behind when a hunter cleans a kill or when a shot deer or wild pig escapes the hunter but dies later.

However, when the remains contain lead shot pellets or bullet fragments, the scavenger birds can develop lead poisoning, which can cause inability to fly, starvation, anemia, blindness, seizures and death.

In 1991, to protect bald eagles, lead ammunition was banned in the United States for hunting waterfowl. In 2008, to protect California condors, lead ammunition was similarly banned in California condor range for most hunting activities.

One of the new UC Davis studies found direct evidence that lead levels rose in turkey vultures during deer hunts and in areas with wild pig hunts. This was the first-ever investigation of blood lead levels in free-flying turkey vultures.

The other study, the first to examine the effects of the 2008 law on any wild animals, found that the lead-ammunition ban in California condor range reduced lead exposure in golden eagles and turkey vultures in 2009.

The studies were led by Christine Johnson, a UC Davis associate professor of veterinary medicine and an expert on wildlife health, and her doctoral student Terra Kelly, a wildlife veterinarian earning a Ph.D. in epidemiology.

"Hunting is an irreplaceable tool for wildlife management," said Johnson, "especially now that we have fewer large predators but more invasive species like wild pigs. Yet we know that accidental consumption of lead can make animals and people sick.

"It just makes good sense to use non-toxic ammunition, wherever it is available, to protect wildlife as well as eliminate any potential risk to hunters and their families," she concluded.

Both studies were funded by the California Department of Fish and Game. They were published online today by the journal PLoS ONE.

Kelly and Johnson are the authors on the study investigating lead exposure in turkey vultures. Their co-authors on the study to evaluate the impact of the lead ammunition ban are: UC Davis research technician Yvette Hernandez, wildlife toxicologist Robert Poppenga and wildlife health expert Walter Boyce; Peter Bloom, a raptor biologist with the University of Idaho; and Steve Torres, a wildlife expert with the California Department of Fish and Game.

Next month, Johnson and Kelly (who is now a UC Davis Wildlife Health Center veterinarian) will begin a similar study to investigate the impacts of ongoing lead exposure on the endangered California condor population. They will collaborate with researchers at UC Santa Cruz; Ventana Wildlife Society; California Department of Fish and Game; and the United States National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Geological Survey. The study will be funded by a $750,000 grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Act (Section 6) Program to the Department of Fish and Game -- the largest Section 6 grant in the state's history.

About the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center

The UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, a center of excellence within
the School of Veterinary Medicine, is composed of epidemiologists,
disease ecologists and ecosystem health clinicians and their staff
working at the cutting edge of pathogen emergence and disease
tracking in ecosystems. It benefits from the expertise of 50 other
participating UC Davis faculty members from many disciplines who are
involved in the discovery and synthesis of information about emerging
zoonotic diseases (those transmitted between people and animals) and
ecosystem health. Its mission is to balance the needs of people,
wildlife and the environment through research, education and service.

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research
and public service that matter to California and transform the world.
Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has more than 32,000
students, more than 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an
annual research budget that exceeds $678 million, a comprehensive
health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university
offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100
undergraduate majors in four colleges -- Agricultural and
Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters
and Science. It also houses six professional schools -- Education,
Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene
Moore School of Nursing.

* Full text of studies <>