Lead Poisoned Turkey Vultures

by Dani Nicolson, licensed wildlife rehabilitator

A turkey vulture was seen hanging from a tree, in a neighborhood in downtown Paso Robles, California. January 9th marked the beginning of a string of lead poisoned birds that would arrive at the Wildlife Center from the same area, over the next two months. I’d heard of lead problems with condors, and old tales of “The Year of the Lead Poisoned Golden Eagles” (all suffered and died), but this was my first experience to treat this deadly poison. It all begins when a bird eats carrion that has been killed with lead bullets. Fragments of lead enter the stomach, leach into the blood, and eventually poison the animal’s bloodstream.

turkey vulture“Old Man” is what we called the first vulture. He was stooped over, weak, and hobbled; forced to stand on the tops of his feet, as his talons were curled into tight balls. He had no energy, no appetite, and no ability to resist human contact. We began treatment immediately, after learning that his blood levels were “off the charts”. Radiographs indicated many small and large fragments of lead in his gut and in his crop; and to add insult to injury, he had been shot several times, though none broke any of his bones.

The treatment for lead poisoning is very hard on the animal, since the poison passes through the kidneys, before exiting the body. But, within ten days, we began to see some improvement in “Old Man’s” attitude and digestion. Little by little his feet began to uncurl, and his stance became more upright. As recovery progressed, he was finally allowed outside, into a smaller flight cage. After a while, he was able to get himself off the ground, and hold onto a perch. He progressed to the larger 100 foot flight cage, enjoying clean food (compliments of the house), exercising his wings, and regaining strength daily, despite the need for further treatment. Later that month, a younger Turkey Vulture arrived, from the same area. “The Young One” was treated and progressed alongside “Old Man”, although he was not as debilitated at the outset. They kept each other company in the large flight cage, standing on the highest perch, with wings outstretched to the sun and wind, doing their exercise laps, receiving treatments, and relishing the meal-o-the-day.

These two were lucky – they survived and were released. Two more Turkey Vultures and a Golden Eagle suffered from the same fate, but died from the poison in their blood. It is a painful death, and the birds sometimes vocalize their pain. As rehabilitators, we suffer right alongside them. Tear stained faces are a common sight when one of our patients dies.

I just attended a lecture on lead poisoning in wildlife. It highlighted how many species of birds are susceptible to this man-made plight. Waterfowl and seabirds on the east coast have also been affected. Many birds may die without rehabilitators knowing the cause, since the test is not routinely performed in all rehabilitation facilities. Lead bullets are being banned in California; however, since the lead bullets are still available for target practice, and enforcement is always difficult, public education is important.

Please help us by telling everyone you know about this needless suffering and death of our native wildlife. It is 100% avoidable.

For more information visit www.huntingwithnonlead.org.