A Sad Swan Story


You may have heard about the Trumpeter Swan that was seen next to the road on San Juan Valley. Thankfully, one of the people who noticed the swan called Wolf Hollow and we were able to go out and rescue her. She was severely emaciated and so weak that she could barely stand, so we started treating her immediately. We couldn’t find any wounds or injuries, and X-Rays showed no broken bones, so what was wrong with the swan?

This was a mystery until we got the blood test results back and found that she had extremely high levels of lead in her system. Lead poisoning affects many parts of the body including the kidneys, heart and nervous system, which explains why the swan was so thin, weak and uncoordinated.

At lower levels it is possible to treat lead poisoning, but this poor bird had almost twice the treatable level of lead, and her blood work showed irreparable damage to her organs. Sadly, the only humane option was to euthanize this beautiful big bird so she didn’t have to suffer any more.

How does a swan end up with lead poisoning? Usually from ingesting lead shot. When they’re feeding on fields, ponds or lakes, they can pick up old lead shot, which is broken down in their digestive systems, releasing the lead into their bodies. Hundreds of swans die from this problem every year.

Did she pick up the lead here on the islands? Perhaps, but when Trumpeter Swans fly south in fall from their breeding grounds in Alaska, they may stop at several places to rest and feed along the way. This swan could have picked up the lead somewhere in British Columbia, or in Whatcom or Skagit Counties before arriving on the San Juans.

In Washington, lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting since 1989, but it was used for decades, so huge quantities remain in the mud at the bottom of lakes where swans, with their long necks, can reach it when they’re feeding. It is also still legal to use lead shot for hunting upland game birds so spent shot can be found in fields where swans and geese feed in the winter.

We’re so sad that we weren’t able to save this beautiful swan, but glad that she didn’t die in the wild, because eagles and other scavengers could have fed on her, then suffered from secondary lead poisoning which is a huge problem too.

If you see a wild animal that looks like it may need help please give us a call at Wolf Hollow 360-378-5000.

- written by Shona Aitken, Education Coordinator, Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

 Read about Wolf Hollow's Adoption Program here.

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