Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Lead Bullets Poison Wildlife


The nation’s eagle population has made a comeback, rising from a low of 417 breeding pairs in 1963 to more than 7,000 pairs in 2005.  Here in Virginia, there are more than 700 nesting eagles, but as Sandy Hausman reports,  our national bird still faces serious dangers.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia hopes to release two bald eagles this week – birds that were injured but have now recovered.   Some eagles collide with wires or vehicles.  Others are shot, but 11 percent are poisoned.  Intern Kendra Jacomo recalls one young bird that died at the center this year.

“After doing a necropsy  we found some remnants of balloons in the stomach, we found  remnants of plastic, we found remnants of lots of different things.  It looked like he had attended a party and just eaten everything.”

But the cause of death was ingesting part of a lead bullet according to veterinarian Dana Franzen.

“They are scavenger, and if they find an animal - a deer for example during deer season - that still has bullets in it, they ingest the bullet and get  lead toxicity," she explains.

Lead  is an ideal material for making bullets according to long-time hunter and head of the Wildlife Center Ed Clark.

“It’s very dense, so even a small amount has a lot of weight to it, so a soft lead bullet flying at a certain amount of speed is going to have a far greater impact than an aluminum bullet of the same size, because aluminum is not so dense.  It’s much lighter, so when it hits, it stops more easily.”


But for animals who survive a gunshot wound or for scavengers who swallow lead by mistake, the stuff is deadly.

“Lead will attack the optic nerve, so blindness is an issue," Clark says. "They can’t open their feet.  They can’t move properly.  Their reflexes are off.  Ultimately it will cause the internal organs to shut down.  A piece of lead the size of a grain of rice is enough to kill an eagle.”

That’s why he’s urging hunters to use copper bullets instead.  Clark admits they cost a few dollars more per box.

“But it’s hard to use that argument with credibility when you’re driving a $40,000 SUV into the woods, shooting a thousand dollar rifle, dressed in $500 worth of Gortex camouflage gear, using a hundred dollars worth of scent lures" he says, "and if you are a competent shot you can kill an animal effectively, humanely with one well-placed shot.  The people that need ten shots to shoot a deer probably shouldn’t be in the woods.”

And if nothing else, the head of the Wildlife Center of Virginia says hunters might consider their own safety.

“All of us who have eaten wild game know what it’s like to bite down on a bullet fragment , and most of the time people  just swallow it.  Well that’s crazy.  Lead is a seriously toxic material, and no amount of lead  in the body, in the bloodstream is a safe level.”

But Clark stops short of calling for a ban on lead bullets, noting they can still be used by target shooters, military troops and police.  On the other hand, selective laws against their use have made a big difference, sparing an estimated 4 million ducks and geese per year and saving eagle lives in Wyoming, where federal  land managers barred the use of lead ammunition by people hunting for elk. 

The Wildlife Center of Virginia, a teaching and research hospital for native wildlife, will release one bald eagle on Wednesday, August 26 at 11:30 a.m. at Widewater State Park in Stafford County, and a second on Thursday, August 27 at 3:00 p.m. at Chippokes Plantation State Park in Surry County.                  

The releases are free and open to the public.  Individuals who wish to attend are asked to RSVP to the Center at  Those who can't be on hand can still do their part to protect eagles from one of the more serious hazards.


Related Content