Translator Disclaimer
1 December 2012 Implications of Sublethal Lead Exposure In Avian Scavengers
Author Affiliations +
Abstract

The high incidence of lead exposure being reported in avian scavengers is not surprising, considering the frequency with which lead ammunition residues occur in the remains of gun-killed animals. Population impacts likely are underestimated because of latency of effect, low probability of carcass discovery, and the difficulty of detecting the health manifestations of sublethal lead burdens. There are good reasons to expect that sublethal lead is harmful, especially in view of the considerable body of human health literature providing evidence of multiple adverse effects associated with very small amounts of lead, together with the implication that lead physiology is broadly similar among vertebrates. A detailed experimental study of growth and behavior involving dosing and controls in developing Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus), and reports of morphological and physiological responses in other species, offer insight into the implications of sublethal lead exposure on wild populations. Further studies of lead's sublethal effects on avian scavengers are therefore warranted and may benefit from advancements in bone-lead measurement and feather analysis, particularly where lead burdens can be benignly assessed among live birds in the field.

Bird mortality is often associated with evidence that can be used to identify the causal agent, consider population impact, and suggest corrective action when the source is human-related. Even poisons can be directly implicated (Otieno et al. 2010), or they can impart discoverable manifestations, as with DDT and its effects on avian reproduction. Some toxins are slow to act, however, with the result that fatalities lie far from exposure sites and, even if discovered after a time, may offer little remaining evidence of source. Such is the case with lead ingestion, which often takes weeks to debilitate and kill, and whose incidence is accordingly obscure in many species. Lead-poisoned California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus), for example, frequently develop crop stasis or its equivalent and go to the ground where they starve unseen (Parish et al. 2007).

Sublethal impacts of lead on population health and individual well-being are even more difficult to assess (see Scheuhammer 1987, Franson 1996 for reviews). Lead in the blood stream is sequestered in soft tissue and ultimately in bone, where it may remain for decades in molecular positions normally occupied by calcium, the bonding properties of which lead mimics (Pokras and Kneeland 2009). The role of calcium in synaptic action means that neural networks where lead has been substituted are subject to malfunction. This generality of distribution and effect, often subtle, obscures lead's full range of manifestations.

Over the last decade, epidemiologists analyzing human-health statistical data have produced dozens of studies associating a variety of neurological and systemic disorders with surprisingly low levels of lead in tissue, and some of these manifestations have the potential to reduce longevity and impair reproduction. Weisskopf et al. (2009) found positive associations between bone lead levels and overall human mortality, and between bone lead and death from cardiovascular disease. Lead has been shown to impair motor function (Cecil et al. 2008), cognitive ability (Lanphear et al. 2005, Jusko et al. 2008), intellectual development (Schnaas et al. 2006), kidney function (Ekong et al. 2006), endocrine function (Doumouchtsis et al. 2009), somatic growth, and reproductive development (Hauser et al. 2008). Lead is associated with spontaneous abortion (Borja-Aburto et al. 1999), decreased brain volume (Cecil et al. 2008), and behavioral abnormalities (Needleman et al. 2002, Braun et al. 2006). The fact that few, if any, basic differences exist between the chemistry of lead in human bodies and that in birds implies that multiple sublethal consequences of lead exposure also should exist in avian populations (Pokras and Kneeland 2009).

The quantitative tools of epidemiology, so productive in revealing lead-related human pathology, are rarely applicable to the kinds of data available for wild birds. Progress in assessing sublethal lead effects in birds has therefore been modest compared to that for humans, and has mainly dealt with developmental impairment. Dosing experiments performed by Burger and Gochfield (2000) on developing Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) demonstrated impacts on growth, motor coordination, behavioral development, thermoregulation, depth perception, and individual recognition in both the laboratory and the wild. Hoffman et al. (1985a, 1985b) showed multiple morphological and physiological responses in dosing experiments of nestling American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), including reductions in hematocrit and the hemic pathway enzyme δ-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase, although Pattee (1985) found no effect on survival, egg-laying, or fertility in experimental lead-dosing of adult kestrels, and little if any transfer of lead to embryos. Low doses of lead that increased blood levels to only 1.6 µg/dl caused reduced hematocrit in developing Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis; Redig et al. 1991). Lead-exposed Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica) laid fewer eggs (Edens and Garlich 1983), and Ringed Turtle-Doves (Streptopelia risoria) showed testicular degeneration and sperm reduction (Kendall et al. 1981, Veit et al. 1983).

Although much more work is needed, the weight of current evidence, together with the inference from human studies, suggests that sublethal lead exposure can influence avian demography (Burger 1995, Scheuhammer and Norris 1996). Nowhere is this possibility more likely than in large, long-lived avian scavengers where the incidence of exposure is often high (Cade 2007, Mateo 2009, Pain et al. 2009). Ingestion of shotgun pellets in waterbird carrion has long been known to poison eagles (Scheuhammer and Norris 1996, Kramer and Redig 1997, Mateo 2009), and such knowledge contributed to restrictions on the use of lead for waterfowl hunting in the United States (Anderson et al. 2000). Eagles are also vulnerable to ingesting the numerous small lead fragments that typically remain in the offal piles and unrecovered carcasses of ungulates and other animals killed with standard lead-based rifle bullets (Iwata et al. 2000, Hunt et al. 2006, Krone et al. 2009); in one study, 90% of discarded offal piles of deer contained bullet fragments and 50% contained more than 100 fragments (Hunt et al. 2006). Other frequent scavengers of rifle-killed animal remains include condors, Old World vultures, buteos, and ravens (Craighead and Bedrosian 2008, Mateo 2009, see Fisher et al. 2006 for review). Green et al. (2008) concluded that the California Condor population introduced to Arizona is inviable without blood-lead monitoring, treatment of lead-poisoned condors, and programs effective in encouraging the use of non-lead bullets by deer and elk hunters (Sieg et al. 2009).

The apparent regularity with which California Condors ingest lead in Arizona and Utah may, by inference, also be expected to expose them to lead's sublethal consequences. Repeated individual exposure might well produce a latency of population impact, in that accumulated lead may predispose organs to decreased function or eventual failure. Particularly bothersome are the implications of multiple exposures over weeks or months (Parish et al. 2007, Green et al. 2008). Birds with high bone lead levels, or possibly confounding contaminant burdens or other environmental stressors, over time may incur greater risk of death or reproductive impairment from additional lead exposure. The slow development of condor nestlings—5–6 mo from hatching to fledging—increases the potential for them to consume lead during the period of greatest vulnerability to its permanent effects. Fortunately, in Arizona, the ungulate hunting seasons (the period of highest lead availability) normally occur just after fledging.

Gangoso et al. (2008) found lead-associated reductions in bone mineralization and, by inference, greater bone fragility in wild Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus), an effect that could influence the outcome of collisions or other limb stresses. Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with moderately elevated blood-lead levels showed a significantly higher incidence of collisions with power lines than those with low or high levels (Kelly and Kelly 2005). The authors interpreted the results as suggesting that moderate lead levels impaired the swans but did not prevent them from flying and colliding with the lines, whereas high lead levels rendered them too weak to fly and therefore not subject to power line collisions.

The lack of basic knowledge of lead exposure rates, fatalities, and body burdens among wild avian populations, and the unknown degree to which sublethal lead stores affect vital rates, impart a degree of uncertainty to demographic predictions (Baas et al. 2009). Blood assay is the most commonly employed method for assessing lead exposure, but the brief half-life of lead in bird blood (Fry and Mauer [2003] estimated 13 d for California Condors) results in a weak and confusing profile of exposure history unless blood is tested frequently. Monitoring exposure in condor populations has been difficult because they are wide-ranging, and testing is accordingly opportunistic (Parish et al. 2007). It is conceivable that studies might benefit from blood assays for standard human markers of systemic abnormality known to be lead-related. Lead analysis of organs such as liver and kidney are useful in the diagnosis of scavenger fatalities, but these tissues are often unavailable because blowflies (Calliphoridae) destroy them prior to carcass acquisition. Measuring lead concentrations sequentially along the length of growing feathers appears a promising method of assessing the chronology of exposure events (Finkelstein et al. 2010) and offers a way to assess exposure in live birds, given that samples can be harmlessly collected. Such studies would benefit from work with captive birds to establish feather growth rates and annual molt sequences where appropriate.

Lead in bone appears to be the best measure of overall body burden. A variety of raptors have been found to contain elevated bone lead levels, some very high, and those showing the highest levels have been species that tend to consume the discarded remains of game animals (Komosa and Kitowski 2008, Komosa et al. 2009). Lead in bone collected from fatalities can be assayed at reasonable prices by a variety of commercial laboratories using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Quantitative studies of this kind could be used to further examine ex post facto the relation of lead levels to collision risk when compared with other forms of diagnosed mortality (Kelly and Kelly 2005). Knowledge of bone lead levels in live birds would be even more valuable in assessing the effects of subclinical lead burdens, because such data could be more directly compared with behavior, reproductive performance, longevity, and other traits. In vivo bone lead measurement by means of K-shell x-ray fluorescence, so applicable to human subjects (Ahmed et al. 2005), could be highly valuable in bird studies if technical problems relating to differences in bone density and configuration could be overcome. Such considerations underscore the need to develop noninvasive or otherwise humane techniques, equipment, and methods of calibration specific to lead-exposed species of birds.

Acknowledgments

The Peregrine Fund provided support for this project. T.J. Cade, C. Parish, K. Orr, T. Hunt, the late J.L. Oaks, and two anonymous reviewers gave helpful comments on the manuscript.

Literature Cited

1.

N. N. Ahmed, A. Osika, A. M. Wilson, and D. E. B. Fleming . 2005. In vivo K-shell x-ray fluorescence bone lead measurements in young adults. Journal of Environmental Monitoring 7:457–462. Google Scholar

2.

W. L. Anderson, S. P. Havera, and B. W. Zercher . 2000. Ingestion of lead and nontoxic shotgun pellets by ducks in the Mississippi flyway. Journal of Wildlife Management 64:848–857. Google Scholar

3.

J. Baas, T. Jager, and B. Kooijman . 2009. Understanding toxicity as processes in time. Science of the Total Environment 408:3735–3739. Google Scholar

4.

V. H. Borja-Aburto, I. Hertz-Picciotto, M. R. Lopez, P. Farias, C. Rios, and J. Blanco . 1999. Blood lead levels measured prospectively and risk of spontaneous abortion. American Journal of Epidemiology 150:590–597. Google Scholar

5.

J. M. Braun, R. S. Kahn, T. Froehlich, P. Auinger, and B. P. Lanphear . 2006. Exposure of environmental toxicants and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in U.S. children. Environmental Health Perspectives 114:1904–1909. Google Scholar

6.

J. Burger 1995. A risk assessment for lead in birds. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 45:369–396. Google Scholar

7.

J. Burger and M. Gochfield . 2000. Effects of lead on birds (Laridae): a review of laboratory and field studies. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 3:59–78. Google Scholar

8.

T. J. Cade 2007. Exposure of California Condors to lead from spent ammunition. Journal of Wildlife Management 71:2125–2133. Google Scholar

9.

K. M. Cecil, C. J. Brubaker, C. M. Adler, K. N. Dietrich, M. Altaye, J. C. Egelhoff, S. Wessel, I. Elangovan, R. Hornung, K. Jarvis, and B. Lanphear . 2008. Decreased brain volume in adults with childhood lead exposure. PLoS Medicine 5:741–750. Google Scholar

10.

D. Craighead and B. Bedrosian . 2008. Blood lead levels of Common Ravens with access to big-game offal. Journal of Wildlife Management 72:240–245. Google Scholar

11.

K. K. Doumouchtsis, S. K. Doumouchtsis, E. K. Doumouchtsis, and D. N. Perrea . 2009. The effect of lead intoxication on endocrine functions. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation 32:175–183. Google Scholar

12.

F. W. Edens and J. D. Garlich . 1983. Lead-induced egg production decrease in leghorn and Japanese Quail hens. Poultry Science 62:1757–1763. Google Scholar

13.

E. B. Ekong, B. G. Jaar, and V. M. Weaver . 2006. Lead-related nephrotoxicity: a review of the epidemiologic evidence. Kidney International 70:2074–2084. Google Scholar

14.

M. E. Finkelstein, D. George, S. Scherbinski, R. Gwiazda, M. Johnson, J. Burnett, J. Brandt, S. Lawrey, A. P. Pessier, M. Clark, J. Wynne, J. Grantham, and D. R. Smith . 2010. Feather lead concentrations and 207Pb/206Pb ratios reveal lead exposure history of California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus). Environmental Science and Technology 44:2639–2647. Google Scholar

15.

I. J. Fisher, D. J. Pain, and V. G. Thomas . 2006. A review of lead poisoning from ammunition sources in terrestrial birds. Biological Conservation 131:421–432. Google Scholar

16.

J. C. Franson 1996. Interpretation of tissue lead residues in birds other than waterfowl. Pages 265–279. in W. N. Beyer, G. H. Heinz, and A. W. Redmond-Norwood . [Eds.]. Environmental contaminants in wildlife. Lewis Publishers. New York, NY U.S.A. Google Scholar

17.

M. D. Fry and J. R. Mauer . 2003. Assessment of lead contamination sources exposing California Condors. Final Report. California Department of Fish and Game, Habitat Conservation Planning Branch. Sacramento, CA U.S.A. Google Scholar

18.

L. Gangoso, P. Álvarez-Lloret, A. RodrÍguez-Navarro, R. Mateo, F. Hiraldo, and J. A. Donázar . 2008. Long-term effects of lead poisoning on bone mineralization in vultures exposed to ammunition sources. Environmental Pollution 157:569–574. Google Scholar

19.

R. E. Green, W. G. Hunt, C. N. Parish, and I. Newton . 2008. Effectiveness of action to reduce exposure of free-ranging California Condors in Arizona and Utah to lead from spent ammunition. PLoS One 3:e4022. Google Scholar

20.

R. Hauser, O. Sergeyev, S. Korrick, M. M. Leem, B. Revich, E. Gitin, J. S. Burns, and P. L. Williams . 2008. Association of blood lead levels with onset of puberty in Russian boys. Environmental Health Perspectives 116:976–980. Google Scholar

21.

D. J. Hoffman, J. C. Franson, O. H. Pattee, C. M. Bunck, and A. Anderson . 1985a. Survival, growth and accumulation of ingested lead in nestling American Kestrels (Falco sparverius). Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 14:89–94. Google Scholar

22.

D. J. Hoffman, J. C. Franson, O. H. Pattee, C. M. Bunck, and H. C. Murray . 1985b. Biochemical and hematological effects of lead ingestion in nestling American Kestrels (Falco sparverius). Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology C 80:431–439. Google Scholar

23.

W. G. Hunt, W. Burnham, C. N. Parish, K. Burnham, B. Mutch, and J. L. Oaks . 2006. Bullet fragments in deer remains: implications for lead exposure in scavengers. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34:168–171. Google Scholar

24.

H. Iwata, M. Watanabe, E-Y. Kim, R. Gotoh, G. Yasunaga, S. Tanabe, Y. Masuda, and S. Jujita . 2000. Contamination by chlorinated hydrocarbons and lead in Steller's Sea Eagle and White-tailed Sea Eagle from Hokkaido, Japan. Pages 91–106. in M. Ueta and M. J. McGrady . [Eds.]. First Symposium on Steller's and White-tailed Sea Eagles in East Asia. Wild Bird Society of Japan. Tokyo, Japan. Google Scholar

25.

T. A. Jusko, C. R. Henderson, B. P. Lanphear, D. A. Corey-Slechta, and P. J. Parsons . 2008. Blood lead concentrations <10 µg/dL and child intelligence at 6 yrs of age. Environmental Health Perspectives 116:243–248. Google Scholar

26.

A. Kelly and S. Kelly . 2005. Are Mute Swans with elevated blood lead levels more likely to collide with overhead power lines? Waterbirds 28:331–334. Google Scholar

27.

R. J. Kendall, H. P. Veit, and P. F. Scanlon . 1981. Histological effects and lead concentrations in tissues of adult male Ringed Turtle Doves (Streptopelia risoria) that ingested lead shot. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 8:649–658. Google Scholar

28.

A. Komosa and I. Kitowski . 2008. Elevated lead concentration in skeletons of diurnal birds of prey Falconiformes and owls Strigiformes from eastern Poland. Ecological Chemistry and Engineering 15:349–358. Google Scholar

29.

A. Komosa, I. Kitowski, I. Chibowshi, J. Solecki, J. Orzeł, and P. Różański . 2009. Selected radionuclides and heavy metals in skeletons of birds of prey from eastern Poland. Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry 281:467–478. Google Scholar

30.

J. L. Kramer and P. T. Redig . 1997. Sixteen years of lead poisoning in eagles, 1980–95: an epizootiologic view. Journal of Raptor Research 31:327–332. Google Scholar

31.

O. Krone, N. Kenntner, A. Trinogga, M. Nadjafzadeh, F. Scholz, J. Sulawa, K. Totschek, P. Schuck-Wersig, and R. Zieschank . 2009. Lead poisoning in White-tailed Sea Eagles: causes and approaches to solutions in Germany. Pages 289–301. in R. T. Watson, M. Fuller, M. Pokras, and W. G. Hunt . [Eds.]. Ingestion of lead from spent ammunition: implications for wildlife and humans. The Peregrine Fund. Boise, ID U.S.A. Google Scholar

32.

B. P. Lanphear, R. Hornung, J. Khoury, K. Yolton, P. Baghurst, D. C. Bellinger, R. L. Canfield, K. N. Dietrich, R. Bornschein, T. Greene, S. J. Rothenberg, H. L. Needleman, L. Schnaas, G. Wasserman, J. Graziano, and R. Roberts . 2005. Low-level environmental lead exposure and children's intellectual function: an international pooled analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives 113:894–899. Google Scholar

33.

R. Mateo 2009. Lead poisoning in wild birds in Europe and the regulations adopted by different countries. Pages 71–98. in R. T. Watson, M. Fuller, M. Pokras, and W. G. Hunt . [Eds.]. Ingestion of lead from spent ammunition: implications for wildlife and humans. The Peregrine Fund. Boise, ID U.S.A. Google Scholar

34.

H. L. Needleman, C. McFarland, R. B. Ness, S. E. Fienberg, and M. J. Tobin . 2002. Bone lead levels in adjudicated delinquents: a case control study. Neurotoxicology and Teratology 24:711–717. Google Scholar

35.

P. O. Otieno, J. O. Lalah, M. Virani, I. O. Jondiko, and K-W. Schramm . 2010. Carbofuran and its toxic metabolites provide forensic evidence for furadan exposure in vultures (Gyps africanus) in Kenya. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 84:536–44. Google Scholar

36.

D. J. Pain, I. J. Fisher, and V. G. Thomas . 2009. A global update of lead poisoning in terrestrial birds from ammunition sources. Pages 99–118. in R. T. Watson, M. Fuller, M. Pokras, and W. G. Hunt . [Eds.]. Ingestion of lead from spent ammunition: implications for wildlife and humans. The Peregrine Fund. Boise, ID U.S.A. Google Scholar

37.

C. N. Parish, W. R. Heinrich, and W. G. Hunt . 2007. Lead exposure, diagnosis, and treatment in California Condors released in Arizona. Pages 97–108. in A. Mee, L. S. Hall, and J. Grantham . [Eds.]. California Condors in the 21st century. Series in Ornithology 2. Nuttall Ornithological Club, Cambridge, MA and the American Ornithologists' Union. Washington, DC U.S.A. Google Scholar

38.

O. H. Pattee 1985. Eggshell thickness and reproduction in American Kestrels exposed to chronic dietary lead. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 13:29–34. Google Scholar

39.

M. A. Pokras and M. R. Kneeland . 2009. Understanding lead uptake and effects across species lines: a conservation medicine approach. Pages 7–22. in R. T. Watson, M. Fuller, M. Pokras, and W. G. Hunt . [Eds.]. Ingestion of lead from spent ammunition: implications for wildlife and humans. The Peregrine Fund. Boise, ID, U.S.A. Google Scholar

40.

P. T. Redig, E. M. Lawler, S. Schwartz, J. L. Dunnette, B. Stephenson, and G. E. Duke . 1991. Effects of chronic exposure to sublethal concentrations of lead acetate on heme synthesis and immune function in Red-tailed Hawks. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 21:72–77. Google Scholar

41.

A. M. Scheuhammer 1987. The chronic toxicity of aluminium, cadmium, mercury, and lead in birds: a review. Environmental Pollution 46:263–295. Google Scholar

42.

A. M. Scheuhammer and S. L. Norris . 1996. The ecotoxicology of lead shot and lead fishing weights. Ecotoxicology 5:279–295. Google Scholar

43.

L. Schnaas, S. J. Rothenberg, M. F. Flores, S. Martinez, C. Hernandez, E. Osorio, S. R. Velasco, and E. Perroni . 2006. Reduced intellectual development in children with prenatal lead exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives 114:791–797. Google Scholar

44.

R. Sieg, K. A. Sullivan, and C. N. Parish . 2009. Voluntary lead reduction efforts within the northern Arizona range of the California Condor. Pages 341–349. in R. T. Watson, M. Fuller, M. Pokras, and W. G. Hunt . [Eds.]. Ingestion of lead from spent ammunition: implications for wildlife and humans. The Peregrine Fund. Boise, ID, U.S.A. Google Scholar

45.

H. P. Veit, R. J. Kendall, and P. F. Scanlon . 1983. The effect of lead shot ingestion on the testes of adult Ringed Turtle Doves (Streptopelia risoria). Avian Diseases 27:442–452. Google Scholar

46.

M. G. Weisskopf, N. Jain, H. Nie, D. Sparrow, P. Vokonas, J. Schwartz, and H. Hu . 2009. A prospective study of bone lead concentration and death from all causes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer in the Department of Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. Circulation 120:1056–1064. Google Scholar
W. Grainger Hunt "Implications of Sublethal Lead Exposure In Avian Scavengers," Journal of Raptor Research 46(4), 389-393, (1 December 2012). https://doi.org/10.3356/JRR-11-85.1
Received: 22 November 2011; Accepted: 1 June 2012; Published: 1 December 2012
JOURNAL ARTICLE
5 PAGES


SHARE
ARTICLE IMPACT
Back to Top