Thursday, February 8, 2024

Lead Poisoning: The Leading Cause of Death in Adirondack Loons in 2023

x-ray of a loon that swallowed lead fishing tackle.

Although legislation was passed in 2004 that banned the sale of small lead fishing tackle in New York, the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation has continued to document Adirondack loons dying from lead poisoning after ingesting lead jigheads and sinkers that are still legal to use. In 2023, five out of 12 dead loons that were collected and submitted to the NYS DEC’s Wildlife Health Program for necropsy died due to lead poisoning, making it the leading cause of death in these unfortunate birds. Other causes of death included trauma, illness, and parasites.

“Loons are highly susceptible to lead poisoning,” said Dr. Nina Schoch, the Adirondack Loon Center’s Executive Director and Wildlife Veterinarian, “and will almost certainly die after ingesting a single small piece of lead with the fish they catch.”

Because common loons are a long-lived species with a relatively low reproductive rate, their populations are significantly affected by small changes in adult loon survival. Even a small number of deaths due to lead poisoning annually, such as those in the Adirondack loons in 2023, can cause population-level effects for years to come.

Two notable lead poisoning deaths in 2023 occurred on Lake Placid, which had a pair successfully raise chicks for the past two years. One of the dead loons was a female who was found in that pair’s territory. Both adults were not observed together after she was found, so it is highly likely that the bird was the female of this pair.

A loon sick with lead poisoning

One of the sick loons from Paradox Bay in Lake Placid a couple of days before it was found dead on the shoreline. When loons are sick from lead poisoning, they often have trouble keeping their head above water, and “peer” into the water repeatedly. They are very lethargic and do not swim or preen normally. Photo Credit: Chip Bissell of Lake Placid.

“It’s heartbreaking to know the loon deaths on Lake Placid this summer were preventable and caused by human behavior” said Lee Ann Fancher and Mary Shubert, Lake Placid residents who regularly monitor the loons on the lake. “We are hopeful that by increasing public awareness, our lake community will be better able to continue to enjoy these marvelous birds without causing such harm in the future. We feel a responsibility to protect and respect these amazing waterbirds.”

Adirondack anglers can peacefully co-exist with loons on our lakes by fishing responsibly, which primarily includes using non-lead fishing tackle and properly disposing of fishing line.

“Lead poisoning is a prime example of something that we can easily prevent,” said Griffin Archambault, Research Biologist for the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation. “We invite Adirondack anglers to take part in our Lead Tackle Buy-Back Program to help eliminate these preventable deaths. Anglers can clean out their tackle boxes and turn in an ounce or more of their lead tackle for a $10 voucher for non-toxic tackle at participating fishing outfitters across the Park.”

Visit to view the list of participating fishing outfitter locations across the Park. (The ACLC is also currently welcoming new outfitters to join this program.)

Photo at top: An x-ray of an Adirondack loon that died after swallowing a lead jig. Photo Credit: NYS DEC’s Wildlife Health Unit.

Related Stories

Dr. Nina Schoch is a wildlife veterinarian with Biodiversity Research Institute of Gorham, Maine, and coordinates BRI's Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation. She has a veterinary degree from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, a master’s degree in Natural Resources/Wildlife Management from Humboldt State University, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology-Behavioral Ecology from Cornell University.Dr. Schoch practiced small animal medicine in New York’s Adirondack Park from 1991-2002, is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and enjoys wildlife photography, paddling, cross-country skiing, quilting, and knitting.

5 Responses

  1. SR says:

    Was it lead poisoning or the hook doing damage as it ingested it. Not that it’s any better

    • Boreas says:

      Both would be implicated, but likely lead toxicity was the ultimate killer. A bird that is mostly carnivore has a very tough gut. Think fish and crustaceans and other sharp objects. The crop does a good job of breaking up bones and shells, but they can stay very sharp until digested, passed, or regurgitated. Where the hook could have come into play is if it got stuck in the gut. This obstruction or injury may not have been enough to kill the bird outright, but it would increase residence time of the lead. The longer in the gut, the more lead will be absorbed into the body.

  2. PC says:

    Why is lead tackle still produced?

    • JohnL says:

      Because it’s dense and it sinks fast and you can mold it into shapes, and paint it. It can also (because it’s heavy and dense), hold your lure and/or bait exactly where you want it, even in a current. Oh yeah, you can also cast it a long way. And…., in the sizes used for fishing lures, it’s relatively cheap and readily available. Other than that, I’m not sure why they would still make lead fishing tackle either.

    • Boreas says:

      Because most people really don’t care. Unfortunate.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox