Lead Shot vs. Steel Shot

In more and more areas, laws require waterfowl hunters to use steel shot rather than the traditional (and toxic) lead shot. But even if given the option, many hunters are confused by the distinction. In this article we hope to clear it up.

  • lead shot, steel shot - #4 steel and #4 lead cartridges
    Steel shot (left), is slightly larger than lead shot (right).
  • lead shot, steel shot - geese in flight
    From the standpoint of a goose encountering them as projectiles, lead shot and steel shot are about the same. But only lead shot contaminates the environment afterwards, if it fails to find its mark.
    Photo by Bruce Coleman

  • lead shot, steel shot - #4 steel and #4 lead cartridges
  • lead shot, steel shot - geese in flight

Each autumn some 2,000,000 hunters take to the fields, forests, and wetlands of the United States and Canada to shoot ducks, geese, and upland game birds (such as dove, pheasant, and grouse). And during a typical season, about 3,000 tons of lead shot is fired, the bulk of which — having missed its mark — falls to the ground or into the water.

Then, within a matter of days after the hunting season opens, researchers have found that autopsied fowl will begin to show up with one or more lead pellets in their gizzards. And as the season continues, the number of birds that have swallowed lead (as well as the pellet count in the individual bodies) increases.

Of course, the lead consumed by the creatures during the few months that they're hunted may not have a dramatic effect on the wild fowl population's health as a whole, but as months pass and the metal is absorbed into the systems of birds that have swallowed it, lead poisoning can result. Therefore, over the course of the winter, some fowl will die as a direct result of eating the toxic element, and many more will contract one or another common avian illness, brought on by a lead-caused weakening of their immune systems. Worse still, some of those sick birds may well initiate epidemics (of cholera, for example) that kill many of their nonpoisoned companions. In fact, the available reports indicate that as many as five waterfowl may die from lead-related causes for every one that has an actual lethal poisoning.

Now the fact that lead is toxic is, of course, not a new discovery. The harm that the heavy metal can cause to humans has long been recognized (see Gardening, Lead Contamination, and Children), and its possible negative effect on the waterfowl that accidentally eat it was commented on as far back as the 1840's. Then, in the 1950's and 60's, a great deal of research was done in the U.S. in an effort to prove or disprove the notion that lead pellets do present a danger to birds, and since 1970 the relationship between ingested lead shot and waterfowl mortality has been widely — if not universally — recognized.

Unfortunately, the problem is a complicated one, and the solution isn't — at least in many hunters' eyes — entirely clear. Furthermore, the folks here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS know (from the letters we receive and from our various reader surveys) that many of you are both hunters and concerned environmentalists. So we've decided that it's high time the subject of lead shot was discussed in our pages. We hope to provide information that will allow you to evaluate the matter yourselves.

A Sick Picnic

Though it's difficult to observe a duck or dove in the act of eating a lead pellet, most biologists assume that the fowl mistake the shot for some component of their normal diet — which would often include seeds, corn, and grit to aid digestion. Once the pellets enter their bodies, the grinding action in the birds' gizzards breaks down the shot and allows the element to be absorbed into the bloodstream, the organs, and — eventually — the bones. Specimens of both waterfowl and upland game birds (particularly doves) have been found with bone-lead content running well above the levels considered tolerable, and in some cases easily high enough to cause death. Of course, excessive bone-lead content is only an indication of long-term (chronic) exposure. Many other birds have been injured or killed by acute (short-term) poisoning that affected their organs and/or brains.

7/27/2016 2:40:46 AM

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