It was a typical phone call for Martha Jordan. Someone had found a sickly-looking swan; Jordan had better come collect the body.
When she arrived on scene, an elegant white bird with a black beak, a symbol of grace and beauty, lay draped across the tall grass at the edge of a lake. Jordan trudged through the marsh, scooped up its emaciated, 10-pound body and cradled the dead bird in her arms.
That’s when she spotted a second swan.
“It wasn’t totally abnormal to see two of them,” she said, recalling the January 2015 incident. “When I saw a third one, I had a feeling something wasn’t right.”
A former wildlife biologist, Jordan’s intuition proved correct. Over the next month she discovered more than 50 dead swans in Western Washington’s rural King County.
For Jordan and a small coalition of scientists and volunteers, the event marked an extreme case of something that happens across the region each winter. As their Alaskan breeding grounds freeze over, trumpeter swans fly south in search of food in the Pacific Northwest and other North American wintering grounds. But according to wildlife officials, hundreds of these birds don’t make the return flight each year because they die eating something they shouldn’t: lead hunting ammunition.
“They’re dying a horrible death,” said Jordan, the founder and executive director of the Northwest Swan Conservation Association.
Jordan has been working with swans since the 1970s, but lead poisonings didn’t get on local scientists’ radar until two decades later. After centuries in circulation, lead hunting ammunition had collected at the bottom of Judson Lake, a popular swan hangout on Washington’s border with Canada. Like other waterfowl that eat small stones to aid digestion, the swans had begun gulping down toxic pellets by mistake.
Scientists spent years scaring the birds off with lasers and inflatable boats, and later installed bamboo poles to prevent the birds from landing on the lake. Death rates fell by 80 percent, wildlife officials say.
But since then other toxic “hot spots” have popped up, and efforts to track sources of the lead haven’t succeeded. During the 2015 die-off in King County — 120 miles from Judson Lake — one swan’s digestive tract contained more than 600 shotgun pellets. Half of them were made of lead.
“There’s only so much you can do to help them,” said Daniel Zimmerman, a biologist with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The lead is all over.”
Zimmerman focuses his swan recovery efforts in Skagit and Whatcom counties, the northwest corner of Washington state. Like Jordan, he searches for sick swans in common roosting areas, using a motor boat and a six-foot-long net to capture them for rehab.
Last year, the Whatcom Wildife Rehabilitation Center alone received a record 120 lead-poisoned swans, up from an average of 15 birds a year previously. Most of the swans have too much lead in their systems to be saved.
“It’s a sad time of year, but it’s worth it even if we can save one patient,” Alysha Elsby, the clinic’s lead rehabilitator, said.
It takes two months to remove the lead from a swan’s body. Elsby feeds and medicates the birds twice a day.
She expects her workload to increase. Once bordering extinction, the swan population has been rising in North America — reaching record levels in Western Washington this winter — and so has the stockpile of lead in the environment.
Despite a quarter-century-old federal ban on lead shot in waterfowl hunting, hunting with lead shot is legal under many other circumstances across the country.