We announced last July that readers of BirdWatching had voted California Condor the most-wanted bird in the United States and Canada. In the eight months since then, the spectacular endangered bird has been in the news frequently. Here’s a summary:
In August, researchers from Ventana Wildlife Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Santa Barbara Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, and the Bodega Bay Institute revealed that DDT dumped in 1971 is still harming condors today. The birds are laying eggs with thinner-than-normal shells, most likely because they’ve eaten sea lion carcasses containing high concentrations of DDT compounds.
In early March, Ventana Wildlife Society biologists said the first egg laid this year in the Big Sur region was crushed by one of the parent birds — further evidence of eggshell thinning. The field team attempted to give the pair a fake egg, made to look and feel exactly like the real one, but the female abandoned the nest before biologists were able to provide the fake egg.
In October, California became the first state to ban the use of lead ammunition in hunting. Lead poisoning caused by ammunition is the main cause of death and illness in condors. The birds consume the metal when they eat felled game and gut piles left behind by hunters.
The ban could not come too soon. According to Pinnacles National Park’s Condor Memorial page, four birds died of lead poisoning in 2013, and necropsy results of three other birds that died last year are still pending.
On a happier note, Ventana Wildlife Society has turned on the first camera to produce live streaming video of condors in the wild. It is located in the society’s Condor Sanctuary in Big Sur, and it allows the public to watch the birds feeding, grooming, and flying in real time. Plus, scientists can use it to monitor condors more efficiently. Watch Condor Cam.
First eggs and an exciting twist
In late February, the Peregrine Fund said birds in the wild Arizona-Utah flock have begun laying eggs. Last year, four young condors hatched in the Arizona-Utah population, the most ever in one season, and biologists are hopeful for similar results this year. Eddie Feltes, field manager for the Fund’s condor project, said there’s an exciting new twist with this year’s breeding birds.
“Two individuals among the observed active breeding pairs are wild-hatched condors, and with any luck, the Arizona-Utah population might have its first second-generation wild bird,” he said. “A wild-hatched condor producing wild-hatched young — we have our fingers crossed!”
Captive condors at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho have also been laying eggs this year. Biologists expect the flock to produce up to 20 young birds this season.
Here are 10 more things you may not know about North America’s most-wanted bird:
If species were named based on their fossil histories, we’d almost certainly refer to this bird as American Condor. Its bones have turned up not only in California but also in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon, and Florida and near Buffalo, New York.
For tens of thousands of years, it fed on the carcasses of mammoths, American lions, and other giant mammals that are all now extinct.
The extinction of much of its prey and the influence of early Native Americans, who used condor feathers for ceremonial clothing, likely restricted the condor’s range to the West: around 1800, it occurred from southern British Columbia to Baja California.
Beached marine mammals such as whales and sea lions provided a steady source of food into the 19th century.
The mid-1800s California Gold Rush inadvertently led to the condor’s near extinction. As people poured into the state, they shot deer, elk, and antelope using lead ammunition, and unrecovered carcasses and gut piles became food for scavenging birds. Hundreds of condors likely died from lead poisoning after consuming bullet fragments.
Even more died after eating the carcasses of coyotes, cougars, and other animals that had been deliberately poisoned to prevent them from taking livestock.
Lead poisoning was the likely cause of the great bird’s decline to 22 individuals in 1982. And since 1992, when wildlife officials began releasing condors back into the wild, lead poisoning has continued to be a primary reason for the bird’s limited recovery. A 2012 study attributed two-thirds of adult condor deaths to lead poisoning.
In 2007, the state of California tried to help by banning the use of lead shot within the condor’s range, but in 2012 researchers found that the ban has had no measurable effect on lead levels in condors. Lead poisoning in condors, they concluded, is of “epidemic proportions.”
The condor recovery team is considering releasing birds in Oregon — part of their historic range.
The results of a recent study may give the team pause. The authors found that the blubber of beached sea lions, harbor seals, and other marine mammals — potential condor food — contains high levels of PCBs and the pesticide DDE.
About California Condor
Nine-foot wingspan. Mostly black body feathers with white wing linings. Unfeathered head is gray until age 5 or 6, when it turns pinkish orange. Nearly all condors wear numbered wing tags. (ABA Code 6)
Central and southern California, Grand Canyon, southern Utah, Baja California.
As of December 31, 2013 (PDF). Wild: 230 (76 in Arizona and Utah, 125 in California, 29 in Baja California). Captive (including birds temporarily in captivity): 182. Total: 412. Endangered. Population count updated regularly by the Peregrine Fund.