New website lets citizen scientists monitor condors

4/15/2014 | 0

California Condor, photo by Daniel George.

California Condor, photo by Daniel George.

You can help restore California Condor populations. And you can do so without leaving home, just by using your computer.

All you have to do is visit a new website, called Condor Watch, and look carefully at photos of free-flying condors, identify them by their tag numbers, and note their behaviors.

The photos were taken by motion-activated cameras aimed at feeding stations in California. Researchers set them up in hopes of gaining important clues about the condors’ movements, feeding habits, and social connections, but the devices have snapped too many pictures to analyze without your help — about 175,000 so far.

That’s where the new website comes in.

Researchers hope you and thousands of other citizen scientists will visit the site and help them track the location and social behavior of the endangered birds, so they can use that information to detect early signs of lead poisoning.

Lead, explains University of Nebraska-Lincoln ecologist Daizaburo Shizuka, is one of the leading causes of condor mortality. The birds become poisoned when they eat carrion that was killed with lead bullets or lead shot.

“If the birds have stable, long-term relationships with one another, that could influence how lead poisoning spreads through the population,” Shizuka says. “If birds are feeding together and one bird finds this lead-laden carcass, it might bring other individuals there.”

Shizuka says he compares lead poisoning among condors to smoking in humans.

“It’s not an infectious disease, but it could be a socially transmitted form of pollution. I think social networks could help us understand how lead poisoning spreads through condor populations.”

Without a solution to the problem of lead poisoning, the condor population can be sustained only through intensive and costly management efforts, says the project’s principal investigator, Myra Finkelstein.

“We have over 100,000 archived photos of condors in the wild, but we don’t have the resources to go through them and mine all the information they could provide,” she says. Finkelstein is adjunct professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

She says watchers should be able to get to know the birds they see on the site.

“Condors are unique in that they are so closely managed,” she says. “One of the fun things about Condor Watch is that when you identify a bird, it give you a little biography about that individual.”

Findings will be published via blogs and other media as they are made, in some cases ahead of published articles in academic journals. By giving more people access to information in real time, the scientists hope to move quickly toward the project’s ultimate goal of better conservation practices.

“The data is going to be directly applied to develop better strategies to prevent lead poisoning,” Shizuka says.

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