5:25pm

Tue January 29, 2013
Health, Science, Environment

California Condors not out of the woods

The California Condor is a severely endangered bird – and one of the oldest and largest in North America. The process of trying to protect, and now regenerate, the condor population began in the early 1900s. Since then, government agencies have spent $20 million on the conservation effort, making it the most expensive in US history. 

The condor has become a national symbol of the movement to protect endangered animals – it’s the first species listed on the Endangered Animals Act of 1973. And it tends to inspire dramatic statements. Like this one, from journalist John Nielsen:

“The California Condor is the Elvis Presley of endangered species. It is huge, it is iconic, it is worshipped and despised … The condor is the soul of the wilderness. The condor is smarter than you think. The condor is a rat with ten-foot wings and the enemy of progress. It’s a bird whose sad demise and incomplete recovery is a preview of the future facing lions, tigers, bears, and other charismatic species.”

As with many other animals, the problems the condors faced a century ago aren't the same as what's plaguing them now.  And it's not just the birds that need to adapt.

Keeping condors wild at the Oakland Zoo

“We’re passing the lions right now.  And we’re coming up on our aviary right here,” says Nicky Mora, Marketing and PR Manager for the Oakland Zoo. Mora has special access to a hidden part of this animal world and she’s giving me a tour.

We head past the back of the zebra exhibit, beyond the elephant barns, and finally we’ve reached our destination: a giant empty cage hidden away from zoo visitors, out of earshot and out of sight.

Mora points out a mesh barrier surrounding the cage that blocks out sound and obscures visibility. It’s “so that the birds don’t get scared, and they’re just kind of in their own environment back here,” says Mora.

The cage is about 20 square feet and 10 feet tall, built for the birds that will eventually land here. This is the newest site of the California Condor Recovery Program. But there aren’t any condors here yet.

“Obviously we never want to have them here, because that means they’re sick,” says Dr. Andrea Goodnight, Associate Veterinarian at the zoo. Dr. Goodnight has been studying condors for years, and feels a personal investment in preserving them.

“I can tell you that the first time you see a condor in the wild is just a magical experience,” she says.

The way she describes it, when the California Condor takes flight, it flaps its wings once, then just rides the wind currents for hours at a time. The birds can fly 150 miles at a stretch, and as high as 15,000 feet in the air.

It's a beauty humans have long wanted to capture. Museum collectors used to kill condors for their displays. And it’s no wonder; the bird is magnificent, with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, and a shock of red skin on its skull.

The condors were also hunted for food, and their eggs stolen by egg collectors. In the first half of the 20th century, the federal government started trying to preserve the birds, but by the early 1980s, there were only about a dozen wild condors left.

By this point, scientists had been studying the bird for years. They acted quickly, by literally going out and collecting every single bird they could find, and bringing them to breeding sites at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. They found and captured the last know wild condor, whom they called Igor, on Easter Sunday 1987.

“Luckily, these scientists were able to figure out how to breed the birds in captivity, how to release them, how to get them successfully back out in the wild,” says Dr. Goodnight.

Biologists began releasing the condors just five years after they had collected them all.  They’ve continued to breed them, and now, 26 years later, there are 226 wild California Condors.

But the birds still aren’t totally out of the woods, so to speak. It's illegal to hunt them now, but hunters are still a danger. The condors are scavengers, which means that they don’t often kill their own food, but rely on eating animals that have already died.

“And so what is happening to the birds now is that they’re eating carcasses that they find out in the wild, that have been shot by hunters, or ranchers or poachers at times as well,” explains Dr. Goodnight.

Nowadays, the carcasses the condors eat are often animals that were shot and killed by lead bullets, which means that the meat has lead poisoning.  And when the condors eat that meat, they get lead poisoning. Death by lead is a slow and painful way to go. Lead poisoned condors have trouble flying, walking, and can’t protect themselves. They fall off of cliffs or starve to death.

The problem's become so severe that scientists now go out regularly to test the wild condors’ blood levels, and take them back for treatment if their levels are high. Which brings us back to the Oakland Zoo.

“So what we do is basically give them a drug that helps pull the lead out of the blood.  And then they are able to excrete it through their kidneys, says Dr. Goodnight.

The process Dr. Goodnight is describing is called “chelation.” It can take from a week to long months. During that time, the scientists want to make sure that the birds don't get too used to humans, so that they'll be ready for release back into the wild as soon as they’re cured. This means taking some extreme measures.

“So here you can kind of see there’s two holding areas so we could actually treat two sick condors down here. I would say each side of the holding facility is about the size of a small living room, or sitting area that one might have in their home,” explains Nicky Mora.

But unlike a sitting room you might find in someone’s home, this one has chain link fence walls, and no insulation.

“In the wild, the birds would not have a heated environment, so they don’t want them to get used to special cozy environments,” says Mora.

When the birds arrive, the scientists and vets will be able to monitor them by video 24 hours a day. The zookeepers want as little contact with the birds as possible, so the zoo has designed some special systems.

Mora points out a big black tube sticking out of the cement wall and into the pen. The zookeepers will feed the condors through the chute so the birds won’t think that the food is coming from humans, and won’t therefore become reliant on humans for food. 

In theory, this all will work perfectly: the condors will get better, they'll be released, and they'll live their lives in the wild. But scientists at other condor rehab centers have already discovered another problem: once they're released, the birds go right back to finding and eating lead-tainted meat. They’re still getting sick. So biologists are trying yet another intervention.

“The biologists are literally dragging cow carcasses up there,” Dr. Goodnight explains.  “These calves that they get from dairies, stillborn calves, they take them up there, they know that they’re non-tainted, they know they don’t have lead in them, and so they supplementally feed the birds. And obviously this can’t continue forever.”

It’s easy to see why scientists thought it was the obvious choice to remove all condors from the wild and bring them in for breeding. Otherwise, they’d disappear forever. It's harder to determine how much – and for how long – the birds have been changed by human contact. 

In an open letter from September of 1980, David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club Foundation, wrote: “A condor is only five percent feathers, flesh, blood and bone.  The rest is place. Condors are a soaring manifestation of the place that built them and coded their genes. That place requires space to meet in, to teach fledglings to roost unmolested, to bathe and drink in, to find other condors in (and not biologists), and to fly over wild and free.”

The Oakland Zoo expects to be fully prepared for sick California Condors come early spring, but they’re definitely not hoping for them. They're hoping the birds stay out in the wild, where they're meant to be.