Most people think of mercury pollution as a problem in aquatic habitats. But it is also very prevalent in terrestrial ecosystems— and songbirds, like the scarlet tanager shown here, may be a key to solving the problem.
A neurotoxin that’s harmful to humans and animals, one way mercury gets into our land and water is from being released into the air by coal-fired power plants. It falls back to earth in rain and in dry particles.
Once on the ground or in the water, bacteria make it possible to be absorbed by some insects. In this way it enters the food chain, affecting insect-eating songbirds. Scientists can track the pervasiveness of mercury by monitoring these birds.
The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the Biodiversity Research Institute to complete a five-year study measuring mercury levels in songbirds all across New York, including sites in the Adirondacks, Catskills and Long Island.
Scientists capture songbirds during their breeding season by setting up mist nets (very fine mesh nets) in the forest, and using audio playbacks of bird songs to draw the birds into the nets.
Blood is drawn, feather samples are taken, and a series of measurements are recorded before the bird is released back to the wild. Here, Oksana Lane of BRI looks for the right place to take blood from this songbird.
The information gathered will provide baseline data to help monitor how much mercury gets into the environment and how mercury levels change over time.
With this information, we can better understand the effectiveness of New York State and national policies regarding mercury emissions and help raise public awareness about this critical issue.