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The Science Behind Lead Shot and the Effects on Upland Birds

The Science Behind Lead Shot and the Effects on Upland Birds

  • Project Upland supports the voluntary use of non-toxic ammunition.
A bird hunter loads his shotgun with lead shot.

Looking at both sides of the lead shot debate and its effects on the environment

If the topic of climate change affects people’s blood pressure, you can bet that the discussion of lead shot will do it, too. Nobody really likes it when their choices are taken away from them, and lead ammunition is no different. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mandated that all hunters nationwide use non-lead shot on waterfowl in 1991, there was a lot of unrest from hunters. And while the alternative options have improved and prices have dropped in the decades since then, the socio-political lead debate still continues.

So what’s wrong with lead?

If hunting is a part of your family, your grandparents and parents probably used lead shot exclusively, and there’s a good chance you still use it, as well. Lead is a very common load for upland birds, turkeys, and small game. Why? Because it’s very effective. The dense and heavy metal is great for its pattern uniformity at various distances, and it’s relatively cheap because it’s so abundant. But the problem is that lead is also toxic – to humans and wildlife alike. No matter where you fall on the lead debate, it’s hard to argue on the toxicity issue.

Wild birds, for example, are primarily affected by lead due to ingestion. Waterfowl and loons consume the spent shot pellets and fishing sinkers on the bottom of wetlands and lakes (Daury et al. 1993). Upland birds eat the pellets mistaking it for seeds or grit. And scavenging birds may eat the gut piles or remains of other animals killed with lead fragments or shot still in the tissue. Once it enters a bird’s bloodstream in sufficient quantities, it can cause nervous system damage (leading to erratic flight and movement), emaciation (i.e., loss of fat and muscle), or even reproductive system harm. More pressing, lead can then be transferred to humans who eat these birds.

Read: Why I Stopped Shooting Lead at Doves

Johansen et al. (2006) observed that hunters in Greenland eating waterfowl killed with lead shot had a significant increase in blood lead level versus those who did not eat them. In humans, lead poisoning can cause kidney damage, blood pressure increases, anemia, reduced fertility, and childhood neurological or neurochemical issues. Due to this concern, scientists from North America and Europe have issued consensus statements on the risks to the environment, wildlife, and human health from the use of lead ammunition (Arnemo et al. 2016).

The science behind it all

The problem is that many people doubt the validity of claims from either direction, as they feel the reviewers are biased one way or another. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) launched a review to tackle this potential issue. The purpose of the study was to identify high-quality peer-reviewed scientific research regarding lead and its effects on fish and wildlife populations. The working group consisted of individuals from hunting and environmental groups, agencies, industry, and independent scientists or researchers. In this report (AFWA), they noted that lead poisoning was observed in waterfowl as early as 1874, which led to the U.S. Department of the Interior (i.e., USFWS) ultimately introducing the ban on lead shot for waterfowl. But this review also indicated that the science isn’t clear about the scale of effects on other bird species.

It’s known that upland game birds can and do consume spent lead pellets (Kreager et al. 2008). However, the overall area and vegetation present likely play a large role in how much spent lead shot is really available. For example, a remote and densely-forested woodland area (e.g., grouse hunting) would represent a much lower chance of lead shot ingestion than a heavily hunted, sparsely vegetated field (e.g., dove hunting).

Another thing that’s clear is that lead shot bans can be very effective. For example, a study in Canada (Stevenson et al. 2005) revealed that blood lead levels in waterfowl decreased after the implementation of a lead shot ban. Meanwhile, blood lead levels in American woodcock (not affected by the non-toxic shot regulation) remained elevated in the study.

While there was a lot of initial concern about the effectiveness and patterning ability of non-lead shot, the options have improved significantly since their introduction. Pierce et al. (2015) studied how lethal lead and steel options were on a dove hunt in Texas. They found that hunters were unable to distinguish the ammunition type being used and that there was no difference in the number of doves harvested or wounded. Essentially, the ammunition types performed the same.

Is the jury out on upland hunting and lead?

For those who are unsure about the effect of lead on certain wildlife species and upland habitats, there are a few common criticisms. First, upland game habitat is generally more dispersed and not concentrated over a certain area (i.e., a wetland or dove field), so the argument is that lead doesn’t tend to accumulate as much. And when I think of the remote woodlands I hunt in northern Minnesota, this makes a lot of sense.

An inevitable issue with alternative loads is the price and availability. Steel shot is a couple dollars more expensive than lead per box, while plated, bismuth, or tungsten-alloy loads are even more expensive. For the average weekend warrior hunting ruffed grouse, this doesn’t really make a big difference, but it could add up for those who spend a lot of time hunting (or missing). Likewise, while it’s easy to find lead-free options for waterfowl hunting, most upland game loads are still dominated by lead shot. It takes a pretty conscious choice to choose non-lead ammunition for upland hunting scenarios.

Another concern for some upland hunters has to do with the shot loads themselves. Since steel is much lighter than lead, for example, some believe it tends to not pattern as evenly at longer distances or it loses its momentum. You could mitigate that by upsizing the pellet a bit, but then you are firing fewer pellets downrange, too. Whereas at closer distances, steel shot tends to pattern fairly tightly compared to lead. However, this is likely only an issue on a case-by-case basis as each load (lead or non-lead) will pattern differently depending on what shotgun choke you have and what distance you shoot at anyway.

Further research needs

Ultimately, there are still some questions to be answered on this topic. For example, several papers identified the need for better monitoring of lead levels in wild bird populations (particularly in states with lead restrictions) to see how or whether blood lead levels drop within species. Strom et al. (2005) found that young-of-the-year American woodcock in Wisconsin were accumulating extremely high levels of lead in their bones. While the ultimate source of lead exposure for these birds was unidentified, the researchers could not rule out human-caused sources. Likewise, Keel et al. (2002) analyzed Northern bobwhite quail at a site in Florida for lead ingestion and toxicity. The results of soil sampling and bobwhite gizzard analysis indicated there was a low potential for lead poisoning in upland hunting scenarios compared to lead deposition associated with waterfowl or dove hunting.

Regardless, it does seem that the overwhelming evidence concludes that lead is likely not a sustainable choice overall. And yet, I do still occasionally use it while hunting remote woodlands. As mentioned above, I think it would take significantly more hunting pressure to start to be a concern in the areas/habitats I hunt. That being said, I’ve also started buying more non-lead options and have liked their performance so far while hunting upland birds and small game. If more people work towards a similar goal of slowly phasing it out, there really shouldn’t be a debate at all.

View Comments (15)
  • At one point I used to think the “brand” or shot type made a difference in my hunting. Now I’m of the opinion that if it patterns well, I’m good to shoot it. I think there’s way too much opinion on shot shells and not enough people out there patterning their shotguns. I think if more people took the time, they’d find it a lot cheaper to hunt than spending their money on certain brands of ammo.

  • I switched to all non-tox for all bird hunting this year. I read an article earlier in the year that explained a dove hunt where a single guy put out a pound of lead in a field in one morning, while another 10 or so hunters were also hunting that same area. It just made sense to switch. I have yet to read or hear a good argument for sticking with lead vs non-tox, knowing how bad lead is for the wildlife.

  • Great summary on the state of lead shot and upland hunting! Recently steel shot for upland has become much more widely available and cheaper than premium lead. I am finding quality loads for around $8 per box. Its wise to go up one size (size 5 and 6 steel is readily available on line) from what you normally use in lead and pattern your gun with a few different chokes. Also its very intersting to see elevated lead levels in Woodcock – to my knowledge they have a unique digestive system and lack a gizzard. It’s not likely they are accidentally ingesting lead pellets as ‘grit’, they simply don’t have a need for it.

  • Your article brings up some very good points. Like others, I am making the switch to non-toxic shot for upland, but it is not not as easy as it sounds. The decision to switch comes down to just thinking about it. If I hunt along a marsh for ducks I use non-tox, hunt the same area for partridge/woodcock and lead is legal. Not sure the type of game changes the toxicity of the shot? Think about the areas stocked by the states with pheasants. How many pounds of lead are left in them at the end of each season? Would it be okay to sprinkle pounds of lead on your home garden.

    Finding non-tox shot in a variety of sizes and gauges for the field is a challenge. At the local shops, you’ll see shelves full of lead shot for the field or range and others filled with water fowl size non-tox shot Some place in a lower corner covered with dust you might be lucky enough to find non-tox shot in smaller field sizes and for less popular gauges. Try to find non-tox shot suitable for use in vintage shotgun and the search gets even tougher. There are on-line suppliers, but make sure to buy a season’s worth as their supplies are limited too.

    It would be nice if the shot manufacturers and big box suppliers would get with the idea. I’m sure we’ll be told they supply what the market wants, but it’s their advertising that drives customer desire. None of us realized we needed anti-aircraft size shotgun shells or super duper magnum loads until the manufactures told us these are the only ways to put a bird in the pot. Slick marketing from the manufacturer’s and big supply stores getting behind the idea of non-tox shot for all uses would go a long way to addressing the issues.

    Do we really need to wait for a law?

  • Another concern for shooting non toxic shot is that ammunition options for those who hunt with old classic shotguns that cannot shoot steel are limited.

    Dick M.

    • Very true Dick! Bismuth is about the only option in the non-toxic realm that can run through old shotguns but very expensive at this point.

      • only shoot steel through my old, bolt action, single shot 20 ga. – it doesn’t seem to care and I don’t know if it patterns better or worse, or if the load is wimpy, or whatever, because I don’t care too much how much I miss – why ? we (me and my brittany) run on wild birds to train for field trials where we only blank the birds anyway and dogs must be steady to wing, shot and release to hunt on with no delayed chase – so when I do miss (about half the time) we don’t chase the missed bird(s) – we go looking for the next find – don’t get me wrong, I like to reward my dog with a retrieve and it is good training for the hunt tests we run in – this old gun was loaned by a friend – it was his dad’s – it has a cracked stock, which I taped – he told me not to bother returning it – only run on chukar, quail, pheasant and huns – the gun does the job I need it to do

  • I’ve shot lots of pheasants through the years and am reluctant to switch to steel for one important cost item for me… work. Inevitably you will bite into a shot pellet within the meat cooked and when you do lead is much more forgiving than the steel encountered. Whenever I hunt an area legal to use lead I do so for that primary reason alone and the belief that lead has a bit more knockdown power when it impacts the bird and deforms slightly. Also, the odds of a pheasant encountering more than 1 lead shot pellet at a time is quite remote due to feeding habits that are much different than waterfowl and their bottom feeding and sifting out solids behavior. Just my humble opinion deserving consideration and discussion.

    • You could use Bismuth instead of steel. Heavier than steel and softer as well. If you bite into a pellet it will deform or break. Just a thought for your consideration in the future.

  • I would love to see any comments regarding nickel and copper plated shot as an option, including use with vintage shotguns.

  • Another, less discussed issue is with birds of prey who eat either injured game birds (easy meal) or scavenge the field after the hunt. Ask any falconer and they will tell you they have either personally lost a bird or know many people who have from eating game caught with a pellet in it. Those birds hit that aren’t brought down are land mines for other wildlife. With steel, injured game is not all bad. With lead, it’s not just the game bird that is affected.

  • Well, aren’t you all quick to join the surrender caucus? Please, explain what great problem we are attempting to solve by forcing us all to use more costly, less effective ammunition? Do you think siding with the anti-gunners, animals rights activists, green activists and others who would gladly ban all hunting is going to score you points? The answer to this question is quite simple, NO. Man has been shooting birds with lead for a couple hundred years with little if any negative affect. If you want to join the left in attacking our sport, and if Project Upland wants to be a part of that, I want no part of you. With allies like this, we don’t need enemies.

    • I agree Joe. After reading several articles on Project Upland I have Concluded it is run by a bunch of left leaning Nerds. Like using electronics to find their big running dogs until they point a bird 125yrds away. I have used lead for over 50 yrs for grouse and woodcock hunting and it patterns best and kills best. No. 9 shot in a Parker 16 Ga. kills out to 40 yrds. easy . I lost 2 birds in all those yrs. Steel for ducks is ok because you can see them coming and pic your shots. In the grouse woods shots are fast and close and steel is tight shooting, you can blow up birds. A lot of that shot gets shot into trees and brush too . I would worry more about woodcock and grouse habitat than lead.

  • Last weekend I was gutting a quail and noticed shot mixed with seeds in his crop. I’m in California, so there’s a good chance it was steel. I discarded the innards before checking with a magnet, but this has really made me think more about the use of lead shot.

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