Changes attributable to pesticides in egg breakage frequency and eggshell thickness in some British birds.

Published online
01 Jul 1970
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Ratclife, D. A.

Publication language


The following is virtually the author's summary. Since 1950, egg breakage has occurred with unprecedented frequency in the nests of peregrines (Falco peregrinus), sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) in Britain. Most of these egg breakages are believed to have been caused by the parent birds themselves, usually by the eating of both shell and contents [cf. RAE A 52 584J. One proximate cause appears to have been a widespread and substantial decrease in relative weight (largely thickness) of the eggshells of peregrines, sparrowhawks and golden eagles (19.1, 17.2 and 9.9%, respectively). In the first two species, this eggshell change began in 1946-47, reached a climax in 1948-50, and persisted up to 1969. In the golden eagle it probably began not later than 1951. Other species showing decrease in relative weight of eggshells are kestrel (4.9%, from 1946), merlin (12.7%, from 1951), hobby (5.2%, from 1952), shag (12.3%, from 1951), rook (5%, from 1958) and carrion crow (4.8%, from 1958). No significant change was found in the eggshells of the common buzzard, raven, guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake, black-headed gull, golden plover and greenshank. The only known environmental change which parallels the eggshell change in timing and geographical pattern, and has a likely physiological connection, is the widespread post-1945 contamination of the ecosystem by residues of synthetic organic chemicals used as pesticides and in industry. In particular, persistent organochlorine compounds accumulate in the tissues of wild raptors [cf. 52 584; 53 585; 58 3730], and have been shown experimentally to disturb physiological mechanisms affecting calcium in birds. The general introduction of DDT and γ BHC, first into domestic, veterinary and horticultural use, and then into agriculture, during 1946-48, coincided exactly with the onset of the eggshell change, and these chemicals are suspect as initiators of this change. The post-1955 use of dieldrin-type insecticides contributed additively to organochlorine contamination and probably reinforced the initial eggshell change; industrial pollution with polychlorobiphenyls [cf. 57 528; 58 1406] evidently showed a gradual post-war increase as a mode of environmental contamination and could also have contributed to the eggshell change. Within Britain, there is a strong correlation between geographical variations in level of organochlorine contamination, degree of change in eggshell weight, and frequency of egg breakage in peregrine, sparrow-hawk and golden eagle. Organochlorine contamination evidently triggers a causal chain in some raptors; decrease in eggshell thickness (producing reduced mechanical strength) leads to more frequent accidental damage to eggs, and hence to more frequent parental egg destruction (since birds have an innate tendency to destroy their damaged eggs). Adverse effects on breeding behaviour may also occur. The outcome is a reduction in breeding success. While the well-known population ' crashes' of peregrine and sparrowhawk after 1955 evidently involved unusually heavy adult mortality, the declines in breeding success may have contributed, and would certainly help to prevent recovery. Interspecific differences in eggshell change probably reflect a combination of differences in exposure to persistent residue contamination, differential uptake and variations in biochemical response to a particular level of a residue [cf. 58 2452]. Parent egg-breaking may be a normal, adaptive response to various adverse conditions arising between ovulation and hatching, and militate against successful breeding. Contamination by chemical residues, when resulting in eggshell change, takes the place of a ' natural' adverse factor, but the outcome is more detrimental to the species if reduced breeding success is maintained.

Key words