Once the moult patterns have been taken into account, feather methylmercury levels can be used to accurately measure the mercury burdens of seabirds. We used body feathers from live seabirds and from museum collections to examine geographical and temporal patterns of mercury contamination in the North Sea. This approach identifies an increase in mercury concentrations in seabirds of the German North Sea coast during the last 100 years, especially high levels during the 1940s, and reduced contamination in the last few years. Comparisons among populations suggest that some increases in mercury levels are predominantly due to local pollution inputs, as on the German coast, while in other areas deposition from jet stream circulation of global contamination may be the major contributor. Mercury levels are far higher in seabirds from the German North Sea coast than in populations from the north and west North Sea or from most areas of the North Atlantic. We advocate the use of museum collections of birds for studies of long-term changes in levels of mercury contamination.