We determined trace element concentrations in livers of canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria) collected at Catahoula Lake and the Mississippi River Delta, Louisiana during, the winter of 1987–1988. Forty percent of canvasbacks wintering at Lake Catahoula had elevated concentrations of lead (>6·7 μg g−1 dry weight) in the liver; 33% had concentrations consistent with lead intoxication (>26·7 μg g−1). Based on the number of canvasbacks that winter at Lake Catahoula and the frequency of lead exposure there, more than 5% of the continental population of canvasbacks may be exposed to lead at Lake Catahoula alone. Lead concentrations in livers differed among months and were higher in males than females, but were not different in adults and immatures. Concentrations of selenium and mercury in livers of females differed among months but not by age or location. Cadmium concentrations in livers differed by age, location and month of collection, but not by sex. Frequencies and concentrations of trace elements not commonly associated with adverse effects on avian species (aluminum, arsenic, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, nickel, silver, vanadium and zinc) are presented. Except for the elevated concentrations of lead at Catahoula Lake, all trace elements were at background concentrations.