Condors in a Coal Mine | Science | Smithsonian
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Condors can soar 150 miles in a day on their giant wings. The birds often fly for hours at a time with hardly a flap of their wings (C. Parish / The Peregrine Fund)

Condors in a Coal Mine

California's lead bullet ban protects condors and other wildlife, but its biggest beneficiaries may be humans

smithsonian.com

It was early winter, the end of deer-hunting season in Central California, and condor biologist Joe Burnett of the Ventana Wildlife Society was steeling himself for a task he had come to dread. Burnett and a team of four Condor Recovery Program members were at a remote site in the mountains east of Big Sur, where they were trapping condors and testing them for lead poisoning.

Three team members were restraining an adult female known as Condor 208. Their arms encircled her body, and one person clamped the bird's powerful jaws shut. Burnett grabbed a syringe.

"OK, here we go," he said. The team members tightened their hold, and Burnett plunged the needle into the bird's leg. The condor flinched.

Burnett transferred a drop of blood to a glass slide and inserted it into a portable instrument that tests blood for lead. It takes the instrument three minutes to give a reading; Burnett calls the waiting time "180 seconds from hell." An eerie silence enveloped the group as they awaited a prognosis on the bird's fate.

The machine beeped and displayed the test result: High. The bird's blood-lead level was elevated beyond the instrument's range. Condor 208 was in mortal danger.

The team rushed Condor 208 to the Los Angeles Zoo, where more sophisticated tests showed her blood-lead level to be more than ten times higher than acceptable. Veterinarians confined Condor 208 in a small pen and started twice-daily injections of a chelating agent to flush the lead from her body. It was the beginning of a desperate, round-the-clock attempt to save her life.

Prior to the gold rush, the California condor's population had been stable for thousands of years. The birds, with nine-and-a-half-foot wingspans, soared over much of the West. But beginning in the mid-1800s, a massive influx of new settlers upended the region's ecology and the condor began to plunge toward extinction. Shooting, egg collecting and especially poisoning from lead bullet fragments in hunter-shot game depleted the species' population. By 1982, only 22 condors remained.

Alarmed that our nation's largest bird was on its way to becoming a museum relic, a team of scientists embarked on one of the most controversial and high-profile recovery programs in conservation history. They captured every condor in the wild and established a captive-breeding program. The Condor Recovery Program has since increased the condor's population to its current level of more than 300 birds. About 150 of these condors have been released to fly free in California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California.

Lead poisoning was the main reason for the condor's decline, and lead remains the primary obstacle to the bird's recovery. Hunting season is a particularly perilous time; the number of lead-poisoning incidents spikes when condors eat game that has been shot but not retrieved by hunters.

Lead bullet fragments were first shown to be killing condors in 1984. As the years passed and evidence accumulated documenting the harm caused by spent ammunition, condor biologists determined that if they could not solve the lead bullet issue, the bird's future was hopeless.

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