Organochlorine and Metal Contaminant Exposure and Effects in Hatching Black-Crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) in Delaware Bay
Pea Patch Island in Delaware Bay is the site of the largest heronry north of Florida. From 1989–93, the population of nine species of wading birds numbered approximately 12,000 pairs, but has recently declined to about 7,000 pairs. Because Delaware Bay is a major shipping channel and receives anthropogenic releases of toxic substances from agricultural, industrial, and municipal point and nonpoint sources, contaminant exposure and effects to the heronry have been an ongoing concern. In 1997, pipping (early hatching stage) black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) were collected from separate nests at Pea Patch Island and from a coastal reference site, Middle Island in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware. There was no evidence of malformations or hepatic histopathological lesions in embryos, and their body and liver weights did not differ between sites. Biomarkers of petroleum hydrocarbons, polyhalogenated contaminant, and metal exposure (cytochrome P450 induction and oxidative stress responses) did not differ (p > 0.05) between sites, although activities of benzyloxy-O-dealkylase and ethoxyresorufin-O-dealkylase were somewhat elevated in 3 of the 15 embryos collected from Pea Patch Island. Concentrations of 21 organochlorine pesticides and metabolites were relatively low at both sites, with p,p′-DDE values well below the threshold associated with eggshell thinning. Although total PCB concentration was modestly elevated (p < 0.05) in Pea Patch Island heron embryos, levels of arylhydrocarbon receptor-active PCB congeners, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and dibenzofurans, and toxic equivalents were low and did not differ between sites. Concentrations of Cd and Mn in pipping embryos from Pea Patch Island were slightly greater (p < 0.05) than values observed in Middle Island embryos, but levels of these and the other metals and metalloids (e.g., Hg and Se) were below values associated with toxicity. In conclusion, it seems unlikely that chlorinated hydrocarbon and metal contaminant exposure constitutes a direct threat to the reproductive success of black-crowned night herons at Pea Patch Island. However, low-level exposure to these contaminants may constitute one of many stressors that in combination could adversely affect the stability of the wading bird population at this large heronry.