WATERLOO, Iowa --- Terese Evans is frustrated.
Evans, administrative director for the Black Hawk Wildlife Rehabilitation Project, is currently caring for a young swan that was found in distress and brought in for treatment.
"It came in from Independence," Evans said. "It was found wandering around, rescuers saw it and got it to a rehabber."
The bird, which Evans believes is a young tundra swan, was having problems with balance and droopy wings and was very dehydrated.
"It had no sense of coordination," Evans said. "It looked like it was drunk."
Unfortunately, Evans knows those symptoms all too well, and testing by local veterinarian Lori Cherney confirmed Evans' suspicions. The swan was suffering from lead poisoning.
About two weeks into its treatment the swan appears to be improving, but Evans is awaiting test results that will confirm the level of lead still in the bird's bloodstream.
"If they haven't gone down, we may have to put her down," Evans said.
The swan's circumstances are indicative of a growing problem wildlife rehabbers have been battling for years.
Upland birds and waterfowl like the swan are consuming lead that has been left in the outdoors by fishermen and hunters. Water birds mistake lead shot for seeds or grit and eat it. They also consume lead sinkers left behind by fisherman. Additionally, scavengers and birds of prey such as eagles and hawks are being exposed when eating a carcass or gut pile containing lead.
"Lead splinters off when it hits bone in the deer," Evans said. "Hunters leave the gut in the field and eagles have discovered that is a good source of food."
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Evans said it takes a piece of lead less than the size of a baby aspirin to kill a bird.
"If they swallow a slug, that's a dead bird right there," she said.
The swan is currently undergoing chelation therapy that involves twice-daily injections of calcium EDTA to draw the lead out of its body. Evans, with the help of her husband Jim, also tubes the bird to give it nutrients since it hasn't been eating like it should. The treatment will last about a month and can cost several hundred dollars.
There are three rehabilitation centers in Iowa for birds of prey, Evans said. Every eagle they deal with is tested for lead. Of the more than 200 eagles that have been checked, 60 percent of those have tested positive for elevated lead levels and a large number of those birds die.
"It is a big problem out there," Evans said. "It is very frustrating for us as rehabbers to see it over and over again when it is something completely preventable."
Evans points out that people are at risk as well since lead fragments are regularly found in deer meat meant for human consumption.
"I'm not anti-hunting," Evans said. "I'm anti-lead."
Evans said there are alternatives to lead bullets, slugs and shot made from non-toxic materials such as copper. Lead is a neurotoxin. Copper is not.
"You want the full copper bullet," she said. "No just the copper jacket bullet."
Evans notes there has been some resistance to copper bullets.
"They are a little more expensive and some hunters say they are not as accurate," she said. "But what are the eagles worth to you? What is it worth to your family?"