Lead is a weighty
problem that has agitated waterfowl experts for most of this century. Tons of
it, in the form of shot fired at ducks and geese, pave the hard shallow bottoms
of some of the country's finest hunting grounds. After the hunters go home,
feeding ducks mistake the shot for seed or grit, swallow it by the billful and
die, swiftly or otherwise, of lead poisoning. Some biologists estimate the
"wastage" at one million ducks a year.
There have been
sporadic attempts to coat lead shot with nontoxic substances, or substitute
other metals. Until now, none of them had proved successful. The synthetic
coatings quickly dissolved, the alternate metals damaged gun barrels or lacked
lead's wallop. But a long series of tests carried out during the last year at
the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife's Patuxent research center in
Maryland dispel all bugaboos about iron except its cost.
"If and when
industry can manufacture a soft iron shot economically," says Ralph
Andrews, a biologist with the bureau, "it will kill ducks as efficiently as
present loads of lead shot. And it won't result in an increase in the loss of
All of which
comes as a jolt to the ammunition makers. Though the industry cooperated
handsomely with the bureau, contriving an ingenious automatic shooting device
and supplying specially manufactured iron shot for the tests, it was not quite
prepared for the results. Now it must adopt the alternative to its
"polluting" product with all deliberate speed or face that recurring
nightmare of big business—federal legislation.
In the past, most
shooting tests were carried out on a small scale, and thus were inconclusive.
But at Patuxent some 2,000 game-farm mallards gave up their lives to discredit
a couple of old wives' tales about iron. The tests proved that No. 4 iron shot
performs as well against ducks as No. 4 lead shot. They also proved that iron,
properly softened, does not damage gun barrels.
cautionary remarks accompanied the biologists' report on the tests at Patuxent,
but, nevertheless, the industry was disturbed, and the bureau sensitive.
story in iron now," one bureau official said. "It's so expensive to
produce that it might as well be gold or silver. Pesticides are the big story
at Patuxent this year."
But the real
feeling at Patuxent is that industry had better pick up the iron pellet and run
with it. Lead poisoning among ducks has been described and deplored by gunners
for a century, and the damage grows more severe as good habitat shrinks. Ducks
congregate at the remaining choice feeding grounds, and hunters follow the
ducks. As a result, most stray pellets fall where they are most likely to be
picked up and swallowed.
hunter fires five shots for every duck he bags," says Frank C. Bellrose Jr.
of the Illinois Natural History Survey. "As many as 1,400 pellets may be
deposited on waterfowl hunting grounds for every duck killed."
probing the bottom of Wisconsin's Lake Puckaway found 118,000 lead pellets an
acre. Sixty thousand an acre were scooped off the bottom of marshes along
California's San Joaquin River, and 64,000 an acre at Heron Lake, Minnesota. An
estimated 6,000 tons of pellets are sprayed out over waterfowl habitat each
year. Much of it sinks into the ooze, but where bottoms are hard, the lead and
the trouble pile up.