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 jig-heads and sinkers that are still legal to use.
In 2023 five out of 12 dead loons that were collected and submitted to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) 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.
“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.”
The Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation is a non-profit organization that conducts scientific research and engaging educational programming to promote and inspire passion for the conservation of Common Loons (Gavia immer) in and beyond New York’s Adirondack Park.
The Adirondack Loon Center at 75 Main Street in Saranac Lake, NY, and is open from 11 am until 5 pm Tuesdays, and 10 am until 5 pm
Wednesday through Saturday.
Photos: Above, one of the sick loons from Paradox Bay in Lake Placid just days before it was found dead. When they are sick from lead poisoning, loons 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 by Chip Bissell of Lake Placid. Photo below shows an x-ray of one of the Adirondack loons who died after swallowing a lead jig, which can be clearly seen (courtesy DEC’s Wildlife Health Unit).