Lead-based rifle bullets, used in game hunting and recreational shooting, fragment when striking bone and soft tissues. Lead fragments may be ingested by birds scavenging offal piles or nonretrieved carcasses and therefore pose a poisoning risk. We captured and sampled 74 Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) in southwestern Montana, USA, from 2008 to 2010 to evaluate levels of lead, mercury, selenium, and 13 other trace elements in blood and feathers. Lead was detected in blood of most (97%, n=70) eagles; mean blood level was 0.26 parts per million (ppm). Most eagles (65%) had background levels (<0.2 ppm), 29% had elevated levels (0.2–0.5 ppm), 13% had chronic levels (0.51–1.0 ppm), and 3% had acute levels (>1.0 ppm) in blood. Lead in blood decreased from winter to spring. Resident eagles had higher lead levels than eagles of unknown residency. Mercury was detected in few eagles, whereas selenium was detected in all, but at a low level (0.36 ppm). Other chemical elements in blood were at low or biologically appropriate levels. Lead in feathers (n=29) was correlated with blood lead (P=0.010), as was mercury in blood and feathers (n=48; P=0.003). Concentrations of lead and mercury in feathers were higher in adults than in juveniles and immatures (P<0.016) and both elements tended to increase with age. Selenium in feathers (n=48) appeared stable across plumage classes. Although detection rates of lead in blood of eagles captured in spring increased from 1985–1993 to 2008–2010, mean levels decreased (P<0.023) between periods, as did proportions of eagles exhibiting above background levels (>0.2 ppm; P<0.02).
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Vol. 49 • No. 1