Although lead can attain high concentrations in feathers, interpretation of the biological significance of this phenomenon is difficult. As part of an effort to develop and validate non-invasive methods to monitor contaminant exposure in free-ranging birds, lead uptake by feathers of nestling black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) was evaluated in a controlled exposure study. Four to six day-old heron nestlings (one/nest) at Chincoteague Bay, Virginia, received a single intraperitoneal injection of dosing vehicle (control; n=7) or a dose of lead nitrate in water (0.01, 0.05, or 0.25 mg Pb/g body weight of nestling; n=6 or 7/dose) chosen to yield feather lead concentrations found at low to moderately polluted sites. Nestlings were euthanized at 15 days of age. Lead accumulation in feathers was associated with concentrations in bone, kidney, and liver (r = 0.32 - 0.74, p < 0.02), but exhibited only modest dose-dependence. Blood delta-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase activity was inhibited by lead, although effects on other biochemical endpoints were marginal. Tarsus growth rate was inversely related to feather lead concentration. Culmen growth rate was depressed in nestlings treated with the highest dose of lead, but not correlated with feather lead concentration. These findings provide evidence that feathers of nestling herons are a sensitive indicator of lead exposure and have potential application for the extrapolation of lead concentrations in other tissues and the estimation of environmental lead exposure in birds.
Additional publication details
Lead accumulation in feathers of nestling black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) experimentally treated in the field