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Keywords:

  • diet;
  • food availability;
  • Germany;
  • Haliaeetus albicilla;
  • lead poisoning;
  • lead sources;
  • niche breadth;
  • raptor conservation;
  • scavengers;
  • seasonal variation

Abstract

Lead poisoning affects numerous threatened raptors and is a major cause of death in white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla). A major reason for intoxication is assumed to be lead fragments ingested while feeding on game animals killed by lead-based projectiles. However, empirical evidence on the relevance of carrion in raptor diets remains scarce. We therefore investigated the link between raptor feeding ecology and lead poisoning, with white-tailed eagles as a model species for scavenging birds. We collected data on seasonal diet composition and food availability of 7 territorial white-tailed eagle pairs in northeastern Germany. We also analyzed stomach contents (SCs) of 126 eagles found dead from 1996 to 2008 throughout Germany. Multiple regression models revealed that fish were the primary prey for eagles, and waterfowl and carcasses of game mammals comprised a large portion of alternative diet components. Eagles used individual foraging tactics, adjusted to local food supply, to maximize profitability. They showed a type II functional response to fish availability. When fish availability sharply declined, eagles switched to waterfowl and carrion. The consumption of game mammal carrion increased over autumn and winter and was positively correlated with a concomitant seasonal increase in the incidence of lead poisoning in eagles throughout Germany. The stomachs of lead-poisoned eagles predominantly contained game ungulate remains. These results indicate that carcasses of game mammals were the major sources of lead fragments. The link between raptor feeding ecology and lead poisoning is the specific functional response of raptors to changing food availability or poor habitat quality, leading to scavenging on lead-contaminated carrion. This shows that carrion constitutes a considerable threat to white-tailed eagles and other birds with similar feeding habits as long as it contains lead bullet fragments. Conservation management of scavenging birds would be substantially improved if carrion was free of lead bullet fragments. One method to achieve this is the widespread introduction of lead-free ammunition. © 2012 The Wildlife Society.