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Breeding California Condor Dies of Lead Poisoning

Pinnacles National Monument - The adult female of the only breeding pair of California Condors in San Benito County was recently rushed to the Los Angeles Zoo for emergency treatment after National Park Service biologists observed the bird exhibiting unusual behavior. The condor's legs were not moving properly and it had ceased to fly as often as is normal for an adult condor. Condor #303 was originally released in Monterey by the Ventana Wildlife Society but later successfully nested in San Benito County with condor #313, the first and only breeding pair there in approximately 70 years.

Veterinarians identified the condor had an extremely high level of lead in its blood stream and emergency treatment was undertaken to help the bird pass lead out of its system. Paralysis of the legs had been brought about by the neuro-toxic effects of the heavy metal. A radiograph also demonstrated that a metallic object was within the condor's digestive tract. Despite behavioral signs of recovery over two weeks of treatment, the condor nevertheless perished. The cause of death was determined to be lead toxicosis.

Analyses were conducted at the University of California, Santa Cruz to determine the source of the lead. Researchers state that the lead fragment is entirely consistent with a fragment from lead-based ammunition. Condors are scavengers, only eating dead animals. Condors can inadvertently ingest lead bullet fragments lodged in animal carcasses and gut piles. Lead from ammunition could be found in big game animals, such as deer, or could be from a livestock animal shot to be euthanized, or by some illegal shooting or poaching.

Although there are over 300 more California condors in the world than there were in the 1980s, these endangered birds are still facing avoidable threats to their survival. Condor researchers agree that lead from spent ammunition was a significant factor in decline of condor populations and remains a threat for the reintroduced birds.

"The loss of this nesting condor is a blow to the recovery program for the species," said Dale Steele, California Department of Fish and Game Environmental Program Manager. "The use of lead ammunition is banned and the Department of Fish and Game takes the enforcement of the law and the recovery of the condor very seriously."

In July 2008, California changed hunting regulations to require hunters in the condor's range to use only non-lead ammunition. Information on the new regulations can be found on the California Department of Fish and Game's website.

Condor 303's premature death is a significant setback in achieving the goal of establishing breeding pairs of condors in the wild. The natural reproduction of wild offspring is a necessary step toward removing condors from the Endangered Species List. The adult male condor continues to feed recently fledged condor #514, but loss of his mate reduces his chance of successfully breeding again. Kelly Sorenson, Executive Director of Ventana Wildlife Society remarked, "It is truly sad that this female condor suffered this fate and that her mate and chick must now try to survive on their own."

Condor biologists see ranching and big game hunting as critical to the survival of the endangered birds. "Open space with large mammals is the ideal landscape for condors," said Daniel George, Condor Program Manager at Pinnacles National Monument.

After a precipitous decline in numbers, California Condors remain one of the rarest birds in the world, with a total population numbering 351, as of October 31, 2009, and 180 free-flying birds in the world. That's an increase from 1985, when just 22 California Condors survived.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead federal partner and the Department of Fish and Game is a state partner in the multi-agency California Condor Recovery Program. Release sites in central California are operated by National Park Service and Ventana Wildlife Society. Project partners include the Institute for Wildlife Studies, Pinnacles Partnership and private entities like the RS Bar Guest Ranch. Breeding programs are operated by The San Diego Wild Animal Park, Los Angeles Zoo, Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey and the Oregon Zoo.


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