A Broadscale Assessment of Mercury Contamination in Peregrine Falcons Across the Northern Latitudes of North America
We document concentrations of total mercury (THg) in feathers of Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus; hereafter peregrines) collected during autumn migration at South Padre Island, Texas, and Assateague Island, Maryland, from 2009–2015. We detected THg in all sampled fourth primary (p4; range=0.44–37.46 µg/g) and axillary feathers (range=0.09–62.68 µg/g). We found no significant difference in THg concentrations between hatch-year (HY) peregrines by study site. Mean THg concentrations were greater in both feather types of after-hatch-year peregrines than of HY peregrines, but concentrations in p4 feathers of second-year peregrines (mean = 14.9 µg/g) were significantly greater than those of after-second-year individuals (mean = 8.5 µg/g). Pooling samples from HY birds across both sites and all years, we found no significant differences between the concentrations in the axillaries of females (mean = 2.4 µg/g) vs. males (mean = 2.2 µg/g), nor between the two feather types. The concentration associated with toxic effects in peregrines is unknown; however, peregrines have recently experienced broad population expansion across the presumed breeding area of the birds we sampled, and the THg concentrations we measured were lower than those in an apparently healthy breeding population in the southwestern USA. We documented widespread THg exposure in peregrines migrating from the northern latitudes of North America, but additional research is needed to assess trends of mercury exposure in the face of increasing global anthropogenic release of mercury into the environment and the release of long-term sequestered mercury in melting permafrost because of climate change.