Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology

, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 435-439

First online:

Heavy metal and selenium levels in young cattle egrets from nesting colonies in the northeastern United States, Puerto Rico, and Egypt

  • Joanna BurgerAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Rutgers UniversityEnvironmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute
  • , Katharine ParsonsAffiliated withManomet Bird Observatory
  • , Thomas BensonAffiliated withEnvironmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute
  • , Tara ShuklaAffiliated withEnvironmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute
  • , David RothsteinAffiliated withDepartment of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Delaware Natural Heritage Inventory
  • , Michael GochfeldAffiliated withEnvironmental and Community Medicine, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

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Colonially-nesting species of herons and egrets breed mainly in coastal areas, along rivers or near other large bodies of water. Such areas are also preferred for human development, exposing nesting birds to various pollutants. From 1989–1991, the concentrations of heavy metals and selenium were studied in the feathers of fledgling cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis, a terrestrially-feeding insectivore, from New York and Delaware in the northeastern United States, from Puerto Rico, and from Egypt. There were geographic differences in the concentrations of lead, mercury, cadmium, manganese, selenium, and chromium in the feathers of these egrets. Lead levels were 41 times higher in the feathers of cattle egrets from Cairo compared to the other sites. This difference was attributed to the continuing use of leaded gasoline and the dense automobile traffic in Cairo. However, other differences remain unexplained. Similarly, levels of chromium and manganese were also higher in Cairo than at any other sites. Cadmium levels were similar at all places except for higher levels in eastern Puerto Rico. Mercury concentrations were twelve times higher in the feathers of cattle egrets at Aswan compared to Cairo. In Puerto Rico, we also compared levels in adult cattle egrets with young and found higher concentrations of mercury and manganese, but lower concentrations of selenium in the adults. Using feathers from young cattle egrets is a potentially sensitive tool for biomonitoring for metals, especially lead, since they reflect the local area surrounding the breeding colony.