Lead exposure and poisoning of songbirds using the Coeur d'Alene River Basin, Idaho, USA



Previous studies have found widespread Pb poisoning of waterfowl in the Coeur d'Alene River Basin in northern Idaho, USA, which has been contaminated by mining and smelting activities. We studied the exposure of ground-feeding songbirds to Pb, sampling 204 American robins (Turdus migratorius), song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), and Swainson's thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) throughout the basin. These songbirds had mean blood Pb concentrations (mg/kg, dry weight) of less than 0.19 at a reference area (25 mg Pb/kg soil), 1.09 at moderately contaminated sites (170 to 1300 mg Pb/kg soil), and 2.06 at highly contaminated sites (2000 to 5000 mg Pb/kg soil). Based on guidelines for evaluating blood Pb in birds, 6% of robins from the highly contaminated sites had background concentrations, 24% were subclinically poisoned, 52% were clinically poisoned, and 18% were severely clinically poisoned with Pb. Blood Pb concentrations were lower in song sparrows than in robins and lowest in Swainson's thrushes. More than half of the robins and song sparrows from all contaminated sites and more than half of the Swainson's thrushes from highly contaminated sites showed at least 50% inhibition of the activity of the enzyme δ-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase (ALAD), commonly used as a measure of exposure to Pb. The highest hepatic Pb concentration of 61 mg/kg (dry weight) was detected in a song sparrow. Using Al as a marker for soil in songbird ingesta, we estimated average soil ingestion rates as 20% in robins, 17% in song sparrows, and 0.7% in Swainson's thrushes. Soil Pb in ingesta accounted for almost all of the songbirds' exposure to Pb. Based on these results, it is recommended that ecological risk assessments of ground-feeding songbirds at contaminated sites include soil ingestion as a pathway of exposure to Pb. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2011;7:587–595. © 2011 SETAC