Lead Ammo: Let’s Be Honest About What Kills Birds

Sometimes I can’t stop myself from picking fights I seem sure to lose.

Like arguing on Audubon California’s Facebook page about Assembly Bill 711, a bill to ban lead ammo for all hunting in California.

I wasn’t arguing against the bill. I stopped hunting with lead ammunition three years ago, and I know enough about politics to know that lead ammo isn’t going to be around – at least not for hunters –much longer. You can argue all you want, but that train, ladies and gentlemen, has left the station.

What I was arguing about was this: I am sick and freakin’ tired of hunters being vilified.

Audubon California, concerned about birds that die of lead poisoning from consuming spent lead ammunition, is a sponsor of the lead ammo bill, and the organization is promoting the bill fairly frequently on its Facebook page, which I can see because, in Facebook parlance, I “Like” Audubon California.

Lots of other bird lovers who “Like” Audubon California chime in with appreciative comments about Audubon’s efforts, and invariably, one or more of them makes snotty remarks about stupid hunters recklessly poisoning birds with their ammunition.

Oh really? You wanna go there?

OK, fine, let’s talk about man’s inhumanity to birds.

I have never seen a lead-poisoned bird in person. This is not to say they don’t exist. A video of lead-poisoned bald eagles was all it took to get me to switch to non-lead. I just haven’t personally spotted one.

But you know what I’ve seen a lot of? Dead raptors lining the shoulders and median of Interstate 5, which traverses the length of California, Oregon and Washington. There are days when you literally cannot go half a mile without seeing a raptor that flew a bit too low and got smashed by an automobile.

That got me thinking: I wonder how many birds get killed by cars each year? A quick search on the web yielded this number: 60 million (source: Climate Progress).

Know what else I see a lot of? Birds that die smashing into windows. There’s a parking garage where I teach that has stairwells with acrylic windows, and one particular stairwell must be on a hummingbird highway, because I find dead hummingbirds there all the time. Even found a small hawk there once, not far from some sort of warbler, both dead. It wasn’t hard to imagine a chase that had ended badly.

So how many birds die smashing into windows, fooled by the reflection of the sky or the perfect clarity that suggests a safe flight path? I found a Nature Conservancy blog post with an estimate: 100 million to 1 billion.

I asked Audubon California how many birds die of lead poisoning each year and its Facebook poster didn’t know, but referred me to some studies that might have numbers. Personally, I think if you want to ban a substance because of its harmful effects, you should have numbers documenting those effects. But I’m not stupid – I know the reality of politics lies somewhere far to the south of its ideal.

So, I did a little more digging and came up with a research abstract from the National Institutes of Health that had this number: 3 million. That’s for lead poisoning from all sources of lead, not just ammunition.

Clearly, then, lead ammunition isn’t even close to the biggest man-made threat to birds in America.

Proponents of AB 711 say we should transition to non-lead ammo because it’s an easy way to make a difference. For me, it certainly was: I shoot a 12 gauge, and it’s easy to find lots of non-lead options for it. I also make a comfortable living, which makes it easy to spend a bit more on my ammunition. And whether it’s non-lead bullets for my .270 or steel shot, I’ve found effective rounds for my guns – no complaints.

But I do know that for some, a lead ammunition ban could force them to retire their shotguns – I’m thinking of people with non-standard gauges, heirloom guns or extremely limited incomes.

The reality for many proponents of this bill is that it’s an easy change because they’re not the ones who have to make it.

Now, imagine if we were to turn around and say, “Hey, let’s save even more birds by instituting a universal 25-mph speed limit and banning clear or reflective windows.” These human inventions are responsible for accidentally killing far more birds than hunters with their lead ammunition. Why is it that we feel so entitled to a clear view of the outdoors from inside our homes and offices when we KNOW the death it inflicts? And is our need for speed worth all the violent bird deaths? Stupid, reckless drivers and building-dwellers.

Yeah, that’d stand as much chance of passing as eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, or getting rid of Social Security. You just can’t go and gore everyone’s ox at the same time.

But that’s not my point.

My point is this: Precious few of us can say honestly that our lifestyles don’t harm animals, so when you ask me to change my damaging lifestyle while you get to cling to yours, spare me your sanctimony and derision. You haven’t earned the right to either.
Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, photographer and college journalism lecturer who lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.


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