, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 457–476 | Cite as

Reproductive success and contaminant associations in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) used to assess a Beneficial Use Impairment in U.S. and Binational Great Lakes’ Areas of Concern

  • Christine M. CusterEmail author
  • Thomas W. Custer
  • Matthew A. Etterson
  • Paul M. Dummer
  • Diana Goldberg
  • J. Christian Franson


During 2010-2014, tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) reproductive success was monitored at 68 sites across all 5 Great Lakes, including 58 sites located within Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) and 10 non-AOCs. Sample eggs were collected from tree swallow clutches and analyzed for contaminants including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and 34 other organic compounds. Contaminant data were available for 360 of the clutches monitored. Markov chain multistate modeling was used to assess the importance of 5 ecological variables and 11 of the dominant contaminants in explaining the pattern of egg and nestling failure rates. Four of 5 ecological variables (Female Age, Date within season, Year, and Site) were important explanatory variables. Of the 11 contaminants, only total dioxin and furan toxic equivalents (TEQs) explained a significant amount of the egg failure probabilities. Neither total PCBs nor PCB TEQs explained the variation in egg failure rates. In a separate analysis, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure in nestling diet, used as a proxy for female diet during egg laying, was significantly correlated with the daily probability of egg failure. The 8 sites within AOCs which had poorer reproduction when compared to 10 non-AOC sites, the measure of impaired reproduction as defined by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, were associated with exposure to dioxins and furan TEQs, PAHs, or depredation. Only 2 sites had poorer reproduction than the poorest performing non-AOC. Using a classic (non-modeling) approach to estimating reproductive success, 82% of nests hatched at least 1 egg, and 75% of eggs laid, excluding those collected for contaminant analyses, hatched.


Tree swallows Markov chain Organic contaminants Great lakes Areas of concern Reproductive success 



This work was funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and USGS, Environmental Health Mission Area. We thank Jennifer Herner-Thogmartin for data entry, and Christopher Balk, Greg Berner, Crystal Bole, Peggy Boone, Rod Booth Jr., Amanda Bosak, Andrew Haertel, Aaron Heimann, Yvette Hernandez, Melanie Iverson, Matthew Larkin, Adam Lorenz, Sean O’Mara, Ron Mayer, Patrick McKann, Karen McMullen, Melissa Meier, Kristina Artner Mott, Kelsey Prestby, Darin Ripp, Paul Ripple, Clif Schneider, Laura Solem, Dan Tagerson, Joshua Teslaa, Jocelyn Tschaikovsky, Max Weber, and Tesha Zimmerman for field assistance. This work could not have been done without the access granted by > 75 landowners; their accommodations for our activities were greatly appreciated. We also thank Christy Morrissey, Tom Stanley, Jack Waide, and two anonymous journal reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts of the ms.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain studies with human participants and all procedures performed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution at which the studies were conducted.

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© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.U.S. Geological SurveyUpper Midwest Environmental Sciences CenterLa CrosseUSA
  2. 2.Office of Research and Development, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Mid-Continent Ecology DivisionU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyDuluthUSA
  3. 3.U.S. Geological SurveyNational Wildlife Health CenterMadisonUSA

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