More sick birds expected as Minnesota's deer hunting season opens

Hunters can use non-lead ammunition to help prevent lead poisoning in eagles and other raptors. Courtesy of Steve Gifford

Your browser doesn’t support HTML5 audio

The firearm deer hunting season opened Saturday, and the University of Minnesota Raptor Center awaits its first lead-poisoned bird.

"We expect the first ones to show anytime," Julia Ponder, the center's executive director, said Thursday.

Sick birds wind up at the Raptor Center every year. There's one likely cause: lead ammunition.

Eagles and other large raptors will scavenge the carcasses of deer, shot to death often using lead ammo. Sometimes, birds end up ingesting lead along with their meal.

Lead-poisoned birds are weak and struggle to breathe. Their gastrointestinal tract will shut down. By then, the damage is permanent even if vets are able to get the lead out.

"It's heartbreaking," Ponder said "It's a very distressed bird. It's a horrible death, basically."

While Ponder said it's impossible to prove lead ammo is the sole cause, it's likely the biggest.

"Shortly after the start of hunting season, we will start seeing lead-poisoned eagles," Ponder said. "So it's definitely a problem"

A majority of eagles that come to the Raptor Center each fall have lead in their system, Ponder said. Even trace amounts of lead are abnormal — there shouldn't be any.

For hunters, it's a simple problem to fix: use non-lead ammo. Ponder said every major manufacturer has non-lead options and most label the materials on the box.

"This isn't about hunting or not hunting," she said. "This is about bullets that don't kill twice."

Use the audio player to hear Ponder's discussion with MPR News host Mike Edgerly.

For more news, visit