Many environmental contaminants are hazardous to populations of wild birds. Chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides and industrial pollutants are thought to be responsible for population declines of several species of predatory birds through eggshell thinning. Studies have demonstrated that these contaminants have estrogenic potency and may affect the functioning of the gonadal and thyroidal endocrine subsystems. Petroleum crude oil exerts toxicity externally, by oiling of plumage, and internally, by way of ingestion of oil while feeding or preening. Extensive ultrastructural damage to the inner zone of the adrenal, diminished adrenal responsiveness to adrenocorticotrophic hormone, and reduced corticosterone secretion rate suggest that low levels of plasma corticosterone reflect a direct effect of petroleum on the adrenal gland. Suppressive effects of oil on the ovary and decreases in circulating prolactin have been associated with impaired reproductive function. Large-scale field studies of free-living seabirds have confirmed some of the inhibitory effects of oil on reproduction that have been observed in laboratory studies. Organophosphorus insecticides, representing the most widely used class of pesticides in North America, have been shown to impair reproductive function, possibly by altering secretion of luteinizing hormone and progesterone. Relevant areas of future research on the effects of contaminants on avian endocrine function are discussed.
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Avian endocrine responses to environmental pollutants