The effects of a remediated fly ash spill and weather conditions on reproductive success and offspring development in tree swallows

  • Michelle L. BeckEmail author
  • William A. Hopkins
  • Brian P. Jackson
  • Dana M. Hawley


Animals are exposed to natural and anthropogenic stressors during reproduction that may individually or interactively influence reproductive success and offspring development. We examined the effects of weather conditions, exposure to element contamination from a recently remediated fly ash spill, and the interaction between these factors on reproductive success and growth of tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) across nine colonies. Females breeding in colonies impacted by the spill transferred greater concentrations of mercury (Hg), selenium (Se), strontium, and thallium to their eggs than females in reference colonies. Parental provisioning of emerging aquatic insects resulted in greater blood Se concentrations in nestlings in impacted colonies compared to reference colonies, and these concentrations remained stable across 2 years. Egg and blood element concentrations were unrelated to reproductive success or nestling condition. Greater rainfall and higher ambient temperatures during incubation were later associated with longer wing lengths in nestlings, particularly in 2011. Higher ambient temperatures and greater Se exposure posthatch were associated with longer wing lengths in 2011 while in 2012, blood Se concentrations were positively related to wing length irrespective of temperature. We found that unseasonably cold weather was associated with reduced hatching and fledging success among all colonies, but there was no interactive effect between element exposure and inclement weather. Given that blood Se concentrations in some nestlings exceeded the lower threshold of concern, and concentrations of Se in blood and Hg in eggs are not yet declining, future studies should continue to monitor exposure and effects on insectivorous wildlife in the area.


Element Interactive effects Nestling growth Reproductive success Tree swallow Weather 



We thank John Hallagan, Matt Hepp, Dean Sedgewick, Mark Hepner, Elizabeth Burton, Jesse Morris, Darin Blood, Juan Botero, Angela Garica, Brittney Coe, Ashley Love, Steve Munoz, Ben Nickely, Elizabeth Smith, and Lisa Trapp for assistance in the field and Jean Favara, Suzie Walls, Wes James, Neil Carriker, and the USDA APHIS Knoxville for providing logistical support. We thank David Hankins for assisting with the maps. Funding for this project was provided by Tennessee Valley Authority grant to WAH and DMH.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michelle L. Beck
    • 1
    Email author
  • William A. Hopkins
    • 1
  • Brian P. Jackson
    • 2
  • Dana M. Hawley
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Fish and Wildlife ConservationVirginia TechBlacksburgUSA
  2. 2.Department of Earth SciencesDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyVirginia TechBlacksburgUSA

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