What Birds Can Tell Us About the Environment

In the early 20th century, coal miners used canaries to alert them to the presence of carbon monoxide.  As “sentinel species,” the birds could provide advance warning of dangers to humans.  Workers no longer use canaries in coal mines, but scientists are studying birds to get a better sense of the world’s health.

As long-lived species at the top of the food chain, birds are ideal candidates for studying persistent organic pollutants in the environment.  Birds are widely distributed and have the potential to be highly exposed to contaminants over many years.  Scientists can non-invasively study their nests, chicks and eggshells over time to measure environmental patterns and trends.

Over a two-year period, researchers in the Chesapeake Bay area monitored the diet of ospreys and the transfer of contaminants from fish to osprey eggs.  The most bioaccumulative compounds included DDE (dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and BDE (bromodiphenyl ether).  While analysis suggested a potential relation between PBDE and DNA damage in nestlings, osprey populations continue to thrive.  The scientists used Agilent and Varian GC-MS systems and an Agilent column.

In a separate two-year study, researchers in the Michigan Great Lakes area studied more than 200 nests of the great blue heron, monitoring their exposure over time to PCDFs (polychlorinated dibenzofurans) and PCDDs (dibenzo-p-dioxins).  The scientists used an Agilent gas chromatograph.

Researchers in Antarctica studied pollutants and their toxic effects on Southern Giant Petrel adults and chicks.  PCBs, HBC (hexachlorobenzene), PeCB (pentachlorobenzene), mirex and DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroetane) were detected in all birds.  Fortunately (or unfortunately), organohalogen levels appeared not to change after one year.  The scientists used an Agilent GC Triple-Quad Mass Spec and columns.

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