September 2, 2013

Lead poisoning killing loons, necropsies show

A Bay State animal medical examiner is the main voice behind a Maine law banning lead fishing sinkers and jigs.

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Volunteer Julia Graham photographs a loon's wing, as she assists Mark Pokras last month in the necropsy room of the wildlife clinic at Tufts University's veterinary medical school in North Grafton, Mass.

Photos by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

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Mark Pokras holds up a swab that shows that the fishing jig removed from a loon tests positive for lead.

Additional Photos Below

"If we can eliminate any of those threats now, that's the best thing to do to give them the best chance in the future," Gallo said. "Lead is on its way out. It's a known toxin. Nobody should be handling it; nobody should be using it."

The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, a pro-fishing group, didn't oppose the bill. Executive Director David Trahan said he has volunteered at Avian Haven and seen the effect of lead in birds firsthand.

"I don't think any Maine citizen or sportsman wants birds to suffer inadvertently," he said.


Although Pokras is a renowned detective, even he can't solve all the cases. After the two-hour necropsy, the Cobbossee Lake loon's death was a mystery.

"My guess is that this is an older animal that's been through the wars," he said. "This bird's been swimming around out there for days, at least, before it started going downhill."

He could only assume the loon's history: It was an ovulating female that couldn't have flown or eaten much shortly before its death. It likely had chicks earlier in the summer, and they're likely dead because their mother couldn't care for them, Pokras said.

But, he concedes, "probably, we'll never really know."

That's not uncommon: The Audubon Society report said in another 28 percent of Maine loon deaths Pokras investigates the cause of death is unknown, largely because of deteriorated carcass condition.

However, the biologists working with him say he's providing them with information that is crucial to maintaining Maine's loon population.

"It really identifies some of the risks that these birds are up against," said Danielle D'Auria, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Pokras has done it all since 1987 without any contract with the state or the Audubon Society. It's an informal arrangement done on a shoestring budget at the university level and reported to the state and society, which also have limited money.

Sick or dying loons are often reported by members of the public, then picked up by game wardens or other officials.

Dead ones are sometimes stored by the state, and D'Auria, based in Bangor, said she often coordinates the dead loon exchanges with Pokras.

When Gallo visits her in-laws in Springfield, she'll drop off however many carcasses the Audubon Society has collected from members of the public.

"Whenever I see Mark, it always involves dead loons," she said.

Pokras said he didn't expect to make a career of cutting open animals when he started in 1987.

But he's driven by a commitment to improving public health, and he sees his work with lead poisoning in animals as pertinent to human health. Handling lead poisons people and putting it in the environment can't help anyone, he said.

"We have to be thinking about the world we all live in," Pokras said. 

Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at:


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Additional Photos

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Pokras holds the lead jig he removed in front of an X-ray of it inside the bird.


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