The widespread contamination by lead and the acidification of the environment ask for a better understanding of the effects of the interaction between lead and calcium on various aspects of health, including disease defense, in wildlife. Here, we investigated the effects of chronic exposure to sublethal levels of lead, combined with high or low dietary calcium, on health and several components of immunity in male and female zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). Thirty individuals of each sex were randomly assigned to three groups: a control group, a group exposed to lead with an additional calcium source (i.e. grit) and a group exposed to lead without access to an extra calcium source. Lead was administered as lead acetate via the drinking water (20 ppm) for 38 consecutive days. Exposure to lead increased significantly the concentrations of lead in kidney and bone in individuals of the experimental groups. Furthermore, the lack of a calcium supplement significantly enhanced the uptake of lead. Lead did not affect health indices such as hematocrit, spleen mass and body mass, nor the adrenal stress response. Cell-mediated immune responsiveness, assessed by a delayed-type hypersensitivity response to phytohaemagglutinin, was also not affected by lead exposure. On the other hand, lead exposure did significantly suppress the secondary humoral immune response towards sheep red blood cells in females, but only when the additional calcium source was not available. This effect was not found in males, suggesting sexual differences in susceptibility of humoral immunity to lead treatment in zebra finches. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.