Home » science » Weird Science Day 27: The Return of the Condor

Weird Science Day 27: The Return of the Condor

Remember the California Condor? Twenty-five years or so ago there was, like, 12 left. That’s an exaggeration; there were 22. Remember the grim documentary, probably from National Geographic, depicting the bird’s dire situation? Ecologists were wringing their hands over whether or not they should bring the entire population in to captivity where they’d be safer. Maybe they could keep condor chicks  safe from disease and predators. They figured as the condor numbers grew, the species could be reintroduced to the wild. The romantic Born Free idea.

I remember thinking, right, like that’s going to work. I couldn’t believe that it would be healthier for a wild animal to live in a cage. I couldn’t imagine humans would not botch it up. Introduce some horrible new disease and wipe out the entire population in the course of season. Or maybe the project would run out of money and the poor birds would be dispensed to various zoos across the country. A breeding pair to Toledo, a solitary old couple to the National Zoo in D.C. I held out no hopes for this lost bird.

I am overjoyed to say I was way wrong.

The biologists have done well. The California condor population is not yet thriving but it is increasing. According to the National Park Service, there are 394 birds as of October 31 and most of them–205 of them–are living out in the wild. Some of them are even being born free!

My throat gets all lumpy when I think of it. Condors produce one egg every two years. And that egg is not always fertile.  I can’t believe the success the condor program has had so far when faced with such odds.

Condors are majestic birds; the adults have a wingspan of over 9 feet. They live up to 60 years and mate for life. Although the birds once numbered in the thousands, their numbers in recent times dwindled, mostly due to habitat loss and use of lead shot and DDT. Since the birds are scavengers, they are at the very top of the food chain. Whatever is found in the bodies of their prey will wind up in theirs. And as  lead and DDT accumulated in the environments, so too did it accumulate in the condors’ prey and then, of course, in the condors themselves.

Fortunately DDT was eventually banned. Unfortunately lead is still a problem. According to the Hunting With Non-Lead Ammunition website, “Once lead bullet fragments are taken into the digestive system, the lead is dissolved by the very acidic conditions found in bird and mammal stomachs.  This dissolved lead is absorbed into the bloodstream and then into the tissues and bones.  Once present, the lead destroys the myelin sheath that insulated the nerve fiber bundles. This disruption causes a number of problems, including tremors, convulsions, lack of coordination, paralysis of the digestive system, and eventually either kills the animal outright or makes it too weak to avoid predators.”

Lead shot is not just a problem for condors alone. Other birds, such as bald eagles, as well as animals such as humans can be poisoned by it. In my  mind, the incentive to switch to steel and copper is high. Believe it or not hunting organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, are at the forefront of conservation and as such, I’m confident that this no-lead thing will get sorted out by the hunters themselves.

Of course there are always the unbelievers, those that don’t buy into the lead/condor death connection. In the interest of fairness, here’s a vitriolic argument from Guns Magazine. Mr. Bodinson brings up good points and he may be right, but there is no rebuttal published alongside this article. Did the magazine even contact the Peregrine Fund to answer Mr. Bodinson’s questions? It’s hard to accept his argument out of hand when there’s so much at stake.

I’m sure lead shot is cheaper than steel or copper, otherwise there would be no argument at all. And I understand if someone is hunting as a means to supplement an inadequate income, but the world is no longer as simple as it once was. Humanity’s impact on the environment is much bigger than it ever was when we were all living a little closer to the bone. If the lead in the environment is not coming from hunting operations, we need to find out where it is coming from. That should have been Mr. Bodinson’s argument, rather than just petulantly folding his arms across his chest and insisting he wasn’t buying it. What if he’s wrong? The price is too high.

The way I see it, the biologists have done a miraculous job in bringing these condors back. They’ve got a long way to go, and yes, it costs tons of money, but as they are safeguarding the environment for the condors, they are safeguarding it for all the wild animals. And us. That goes a long way. And if it costs a lot of money, that’s only because as humans we’ve done a lot of damage and now we have to pay for it.

Here’s wishing the condor all the success of the new year and a happy return to the wild.

Sue Lange

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