The Presence and Impact of Environmental Lead in Passerine Birds Along an Urban to Rural Land Use Gradient

Abstract

Contamination of wetlands by lead shot and lead fishing weights has generated a tremendous amount of research into the impact of lead poisoning on wildlife. Less well known are the potential threats to wildlife posed by lead contaminants still prevalent in urban environments. Despite a U.S. federal ban on lead-based paint and gasoline in 1978 and 1986, respectively, lead residue is still prevalent at hazardous levels in urban and suburban environments and may present a health concern for people and wildlife, particularly birds. We quantified soil lead content in residential properties across a rural-to-urban land-use gradient in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area and then assessed the impact of lead contamination on body condition in adult and nestling passerine birds at the same sites. Soil lead concentration was significantly higher in urban sites compared to rural sites. Accordingly, adult and nestling birds captured in urban sites had significantly higher blood lead concentrations than their rural counterparts. However, only gray catbird nestlings exhibited lower body condition as a result of lead contamination. Birds continue to breed in urban habitats despite numerous negative attributes to these environments including light, noise, pedestrian and toxic contaminants, such as lead. These sites often contain habitat that appears suitable for roosting, nesting, and foraging and thus may act as an ecological trap for breeding birds because breeding success is often negatively associated with increasing urbanization. Lead contamination is one more feature of urbanization that birds and other wildlife must face in an increasingly developed world.

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Acknowledgments

This research was only possible thanks to the dedicated interest and help from the Neighborhood Nestwatch participants, some of whom provided vast amounts of information. Indispensable field assistants included Sara Campbell, Aviva Glaser, Joanna Hubbard, Michael Newhouse, and Sarah Rohrbach. Funding was provided by a Smithsonian Institution Graduate Fellowship, Mark Johnson of the U.S. Army Center of Health and Preventive Medicine, Toxicology Department and The Maryland Ornithological Society.

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Correspondence to Peter P. Marra.

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Roux, K.E., Marra, P.P. The Presence and Impact of Environmental Lead in Passerine Birds Along an Urban to Rural Land Use Gradient. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 53, 261–268 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00244-006-0174-4

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Keywords

  • Body Condition
  • Lead Concentration
  • Ethylene Diamine Tetraacetic Acid
  • Ethylene Diamine Tetraacetic Acid
  • Blood Lead Level