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Happy 1 Year Anniversary CondorWatch!

We want to give a huge THANK YOU to all the dedicated CondorWatchers who have helped us reach almost 340,000 classifications!  We also would like to commemorate this time with a little recognition of the condors that we lost over the last year as well as some of the new birds that have come to join the free-flying California population.

A big THANK YOU to wreness (our moderator extraordinaire) for her help compiling these photos and information and of course all she does for CondorWatch! 

We had five chicks that fledged from the wild in 2014,  including the unknown “Mystery”, who became famous for showing up for lunch one day at the Ventana Wildlife Society.   (http://www.ventanaws.org/)

And the best news yet – a record 16 pairs of condors have made nests in CA so far in 2015!  So, lets hope we have a record number of wild-fledged chicks in 2015!

And now the sad part — free-flying condors we lost this year from California:

We see them so frequently in the photos – sometimes 6 years in their lives – and they get to be familiar faces.   It is always heartbreaking to see in a condor’s Bio that it has died from lead poisoning but hits harder when you have seen this bird in hundreds of photos.   We sincerely appreciate your to help compiling data that can add a new tool to the arsenal in treating these condors before it’s too late.

So, in Memory for these majestic birds (15 of them total) that we lost from the free-flying California population since CondorWatch launched:

*Orange63 (63 Male)    5/8/1991 – 9/28/2014   Age 23   cause of death: trauma – predation

Orange63

*Red25   (125 Male)     6/2/1995 – 7/18/2014   Age 18 years   cause of death: bobcat predation

Condor #125 hatched at the San Diego Safari Park in 1995 and was released the following year. He was an 18 year-old breeding male that had been paired with female condor #111 since 2003.   He paired with #111 eleven times over twelve years, making them the longest lasting and most prolific pair of condors in the southern California flock.   Despite many nest failures early on in their relationship, they successfully fledged four chicks.   Three of their four offspring are currently flying in the SoCal population

Red25

*400 (Female) –   wore tags: Black0 Underline, White0, White 00     4/11/2006 – 4/292014   8 years   cause of death: lead poisoning

400

*401 (Male) wore tags: Black 01 Underline, White 1     4/13/2006 – 6/15/2014 8 years  cause of death: lead poisoning

A true fighter, 401 was treated for lead poisoning at least five times including surviving being shot with lead bird shot.   The last and fatal poisoning event ended his life.   The whole story can be read on our blog here https://blog.condorwatch.org/2014/10/28/the-tragic-fate-of-condor-401/

401

*White11 (411 Male)     4/26/2006 – 12/6/14       cause of death: undetermined;, scavenged remains

411

*White44 (444 “Ventana”)   5/5/2007 – 8/26/2014  cause of death:  lead poisoning

#444 was known as “Ventana”   to the many condor spotters who searched the skies with their binoculars,   She was hatched from an egg laid at the Los Angeles Zoo and was the first to be raised in the wild by condor foster parents.

444

Also lost in the last year: Eight condors aged 3 weeks to almost 3 years of age to factors such as predation, trauma, and a few pending cases.

So, we would like to take a moment to remember these birds but also to thank you for all your efforts gathering data to help California condors become a healthy free-flying population in California and beyond!  We really do appreciate all you do so keep on carrion (as wreness would say)!

The Science Team

 

 

 

 

 

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And the Winners for The Best 2014 Photo Contest are (drum roll please)….

We have the results from our Best of 2014 Condor Watch Photo Contest – thanks to our very own amazingly talented wreness!

We’d like to thank everyone who sent in all their favorite photo entries for the contest! We wish we could have had 4th and 5th and even 9th place winners – as it is we had several Ties! Most of all a huge Thank You Everyone who has taken their time not only to classify these photos for the project but who take the time to call attention to all the amazing and wonderful things found within them. Entire stories unfold with every new photo. Some have made us cry, some laugh, and some go “what?!”

Below are a few of the science team’s favorites, but please go to these links to view all the winners:

Condorwatch talk:  http://talk.condorwatch.org/#/boards/BCW0000004/discussions/DCW00003xy

The direct Photobucket page with the Contest album photos is:   http://s1381.photobucket.com/user/Condor_Watch/library/2014%20Photo%20Contest%20Winners

Direct link to the contest photo album with all the sheets:  http://s1381.photobucket.com/user/Condor_Watch/library/2014%20Photo%20Contest%20Winners/2014%20Photo%20Contest%20Winners-Sheets

 

1st place winner most beautiful condor

1st Place Winner Most Beautiful Condor

1st place winner - funniest photo

1st Place Winner – Funniest Photo

featured guest shot - best something else

Featured Guest Best Something Else

Best condor lining up for a golf shot

Best:: Condor Lining up for a Golf Shot

1st place winner - best cooperating condors  clearest tags

1st Place Winner – Best Cooperating Condors – Clearest Tags

 

CondorWatch photo contest extended until Jan 30th!

Hi everyone!  Due to some technical difficulties with the infamous “White Screen” – we have extended the First Annual Best 2014 CondorWatch Photos Contest until January 30th at 8pm Central Time, USA.

Here are the categories and instructions again, for your convenience.

Have fun everyone and as wreness our wonderful moderator extraordinaire would say “Carrion!”

Categories:

1} Most Beautiful Condor Photo

2} Most Beautiful Condors photo (more than one in a photo)

3} Best Action Photo (Condors)

4} Best “Something Else” Photo

5} Best “What The Heck Is That?” Photo

6} Best Coyote(s)

7} Most Disgusting Photo (oh we know what that will be)

8} Best Eagle

9} Best Turkey Vulture(s)

10} Funniest Photo

11} Best Cooperating Birds –  Clearest Tags

12}  Craziest Ravens

13} Best Photo Bomb

14} Happiest/Proudest Condor

15} Condor(s) With The Worst Attitude

16} What Were They Thinking?

17} BONUS CATEGORY!
Find a Funny, Bizarre or Strange Photo and Give It Your Own Category

The Scientists will then pick the winners based on if you Amuse And Entertain them and make them spit their coffee out of their noses, laughing. (No vulgarity! Behave or else!)

How to Instructions:

Look though the photos on the CondorWatch site to find your favorites for the listed categories below. You may enter 3 photos per category.

When you find the photos you want to enter, copy and paste the IMAGE NUMBER of the photo, found in the upper left corner of each photo) next to the category, next to the category:

Img1

An example, then, of an entry for Best action Photo might look like:

3} Best action Photo:

Image ACW00045qp
Image ACW0003rgr
Image  ACW00051jk

The Image number we ask you to enter comes from the entire URL of the Zooniverse page that the image is on. For example http://talk.condorwatch.org/#/subjects/ACW00045qp would be the first entry’s page.

When you’re done with your list of entries send your completed list, via the Zoo Talk message system, to CondorWatch Moderator wreness

You can find the best photos of the site in the CondorWatch Citizen Scientist’s Collections, since they have been saving all the great photos the last 8 months CondorWatch has been on Zoo! Click on a person’s name to go to their Profile Page and at the very bottom are their Collections. Names can be found on the message board posts and photo comments and also be found using the Search feature. The Image numbers can be seen in the bottom right corner each Collection thumbnail photo but they can be clicked to open up to full size but you can look through the whole Collection by magnifying your page and noting the Image Numbers this way.

Img2

On the upper right side of the Collection page is a scroll bar to forward though the pages. You can also use the SEARCH feature at the top of the page to look for specific animals. This will only work once (the search feature doesn’t work too well right now) so to use multiple times, Refresh the entire page then re-enter your search word to use again.

Announcing the First Annual Best 2014 CondorWatch Photos Contest

2014 marks the first year CondorWatch joined Zooniverse and we would like to take the opportunity to thank all the Citizen Scientists who put in all the time and hard work tirelessly squinting into their monitors at carcasses, unidentified parts, angry pigs, various butts, tipped camera angles, vicious battles, fog and yes!  beautiful condors  to classify the data for us.

Who could have imagined the incredible variety of situations, animals and emotions the cameras have captured?

To celebrate we’d like to invite you to take part in helping find what you think were the Best Photos of 2014 for the CondorWatch Photo Contest. Woohoo!

These are the categories for the photos. We hope they capture the majesty of the condors and also the humor that abounds on the site.

Categories:

1} Most Beautiful Condor Photo

2} Most Beautiful Condors photo (more than one in a photo)

3} Best Action Photo (Condors)

4} Best “Something Else” Photo

5} Best “What The Heck Is That?” Photo

6} Best Coyote(s)

7} Most Disgusting Photo (oh we know what that will be)

8} Best Eagle

9} Best Turkey Vulture(s)

10} Funniest Photo

11} Best Cooperating Birds –  Clearest Tags

12}  Craziest Ravens

13} Best Photo Bomb

14} Happiest/Proudest Condor

15} Condor(s) With The Worst Attitude

16} What Were They Thinking?

17} BONUS CATEGORY!
Find a Funny, Bizarre or Strange Photo and Give It Your Own Category

The Scientists will then pick the winners based on if you Amuse And Entertain them and make them spit their coffee out of their noses, laughing. (No vulgarity! Behave or else!)

How to Instructions:

Look though the photos on the CondorWatch site to find your favorites for the listed categories below. You may enter 3 photos per category.

When you find the photos you want to enter, copy and paste the IMAGE NUMBER of the photo, found in the upper left corner of each photo) next to the category, next to the category:

Img1

An example, then, of an entry for Best action Photo might look like:

3} Best action Photo:

Image ACW00045qp
Image ACW0003rgr
Image  ACW00051jk

The Image number we ask you to enter comes from the entire URL of the Zooniverse page that the image is on. For example http://talk.condorwatch.org/#/subjects/ACW00045qp would be the first entry’s page.

When you’re done with your list of entries send your completed list, via the Zoo Talk message system, to CondorWatch Moderator wreness

You can find the best photos of the site in the CondorWatch Citizen Scientist’s Collections, since they have been saving all the great photos the last 8 months CondorWatch has been on Zoo! Click on a person’s name to go to their Profile Page and at the very bottom are their Collections. Names can be found on the message board posts and photo comments and also be found using the Search feature. The Image numbers can be seen in the bottom right corner each Collection thumbnail photo but they can be clicked to open up to full size but you can look through the whole Collection by magnifying your page and noting the Image Numbers this way.

Img2

On the upper right side of the Collection page is a scroll bar to forward though the pages. You can also use the SEARCH feature at the top of the page to look for specific animals. This will only work once (the search feature doesn’t work too well right now) so to use multiple times, Refresh the entire page then re-enter your search word to use again.

Contest runs from Dec. 31th to Jan 10th (midnight CT USA)

Winners will be announced on the message boards on Jan 13th and shared elsewhere ASAP also! Please enter only once.

Most of all, have fun and as always, carrion!

Thank you for all your wonderful work and ideas this year. We couldn’t be where we are without you!

The tragic fate of Condor 401

401

There is one condor I’ve gotten to know well over my time as a collaborator with the recovery program. The story of his life encapsulates the hopeful advances and the difficult challenges the species has experienced as a whole. California condor 401 hatched on April 13th 2006 at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise Idaho. As opposed to being raised by zoo keepers wearing condor puppets (i.e., “puppet-reared”), 401 was reared by his mother, condor 56 “Kareya” and father, condor 71 “Tapu” and released to the wild when he was about a year old to fly over the hills of central California and help his species recover from near extinction. I first encountered 401 by way of his blood sample that was collected during routine health monitoring in the spring of 2009 and sent to my lab to be archived for future analysis of lead. Lead poisoning is the number one threat preventing California condor recovery in the wild and my research includes measuring lead isotopes in condor blood samples to identify sources and effects of lead exposure.

Condor 401’s blood sample came to my special attention ~ six months later because a radiograph taken of him when he was admitted to the Los Angeles Zoo for treatment of lead poisoning showed he had been shot.

His wounds had healed but he had four birdshot pellets embedded in his soft tissue and curiously, he was the third condor that had been found to have been shot within six months (to read about this case see http://www.fws.gov/cno/es/calcondor/PDF_files/2014-9-Finkelstein-Enviromental-Research.pdf). Condor 401 survived his lead poisoning treatment and was released back to the central California countryside.

Less than a year later, in June 2010, condor 401 was back at the Los Angeles Zoo being treated for one of the highest blood leads we had seen up to that point – ~560 µg/dL! (Unfortunately in the past few years we have seen several other condors with equivalently high and lethal blood lead levels). Another radiograph showed that condor 401 had eaten a lead buckshot. 401 was fed rabbit fur to get him to expel the lead item without surgery. Luckily the rabbit fur worked and 401 regurgitated the buckshot! After a few months of intensive treatment by his amazing and talented medical staff, condor 401 recovered and was released again to fly free above the hills of central California.

Presentation1

Radiograph of condor 401 taken 21 June 2010 shows three radio-opaque objects embedded in the wing (assumed to be birdshot) and one larger radio-opaque object in digestive tract, later identified as lead buckshot after regurgitation and analysis. Insert panel, lower right: comparison of one of the surgically removed birdshot with the regurgitated buckshot pellets. Figure adapted from Finkelstein et al. (2014).

But 401 was not going to be free for long – over the course of his short life in the wild he was treated for lead poisoning at least five times with the last and fatal poisoning event ending his life on June 15th 2014. Condor 401 was only eight years old when he died – just a teenager and well below his ‘normal’ lifespan of ~ about 50 years of age. Importantly, in terms of his species’ future survival, he would also never have the chance to reproduce.

I wish I could say that 401’s case was unique, but sadly it is not. Approximately half the condors free-flying in California have been treated for lead poisoning at least once, with many birds being treated more than once. Lead poisoning is the number one cause of mortality for free-flying juvenile and adult condors and our research has shown that condors are primarily lead poisoned by eating animals that have been shot with lead-based ammunition. With so many alternatives to lead ammunition available we are hopeful that one day a condor (or any scavenger) can eat their dinner without risk of being poisoned by lead. May 401’s suffering and death be a reminder to us all about the health risks from lead ammunition (for more information see https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6dq3h64x).

For more information on hunting with non-lead ammunition please see http://huntingwithnonlead.org/.

The Color of Condors

California condor juveniles have darkish grey heads and necks and then around four years of age start to become more and more pinkish/orange/red (see the field guide for more information and photos of examples here and at the bottom of the wreness’s slidshow here) until they are about six years old when they obtain the full coloring of a mature adult.  However, like everything, a condor’s color is not so simple. We have some special thoughts and tips about a condor’s ability to change their coloring from Mike Clark (aka the Condor Whisperer) who works at the Los Angeles Zoo and is truly one of the heroes of the condor recovery movement.

Here are Mike’s thoughts/observations:

In my opinion females have a yellower coloration from the malar stripe forward than males. Of course it varies from bird to bird. but if you put them side by side I find the females have a yellower face generally from the malar stripe forward. Males can have the same yellow in this place but it is usually shaded with a little more flushed coloration mixed in . This is not a hard and fast rule obviously.

Here are some examples of the male/female difference:

Topa Topa, stud book #1, he is a male. Topa Topa is the first condor brought into captivity – he was brought into captivity when he was very young (~1 years old) on 12 Feb.1967 as he was found injured and in poor health. He is too imprinted to be released to the wild but is the king of the condors at the Los Angeles Zoo and has fathered many of the free-flying birds you see in the photos!

Topa Topa, stud book #1, he is a male. Topa Topa is the first condor brought into captivity – he was brought into captivity when he was very young (~1 years old) on 12 Feb.1967 as he was found injured and in poor health. He is too imprinted to be released to the wild but is the king of the condors at the Los Angeles Zoo and has fathered many of the free-flying birds you see in the photos!

Malibu – a mature female condor and paired with Topa for many years as part of the Los Angeles Zoo’s condor breeding program.

Malibu – a mature female condor and paired with Topa for many years as part of the Los Angeles Zoo’s condor breeding program.

Intensity of color varies widely. When birds are upset or angry around the nest or young the colors intensify.  They also go starkly pale when in fear or being pursued (like by someone with a net when being trapped for health check-ups). [We don’t know what happened before this photo was taken, but Condor Watchers observed a remarkably pale female 190, aka Red 90, here]

Another observation is that the mature adults tend to have a bluish neck. [Again, CondorWatchers recently noted a particularly blue neck here] When they get a hold of food and start to dig in on the food the neck flushes (if its exposed and the ruff isn’t up) and the neck turns more purple than blue.

I think the bird’s diet, and beta carotene in particular, has very drastic effect on coloration of the birds’ faces. [Although we think of orange vegetables as sources of beta carotene, it is also found in meat and especially liver]

Can you guess from the descriptions above who here is the male and female of a current breeding pair at the Los Angeles Zoo?

pair for coloring 2

pair for coloring

Let us know if you see any extreme examples of these color variations by tagging the photos – especially if you see a condor with a bluish/purplish color when feeding!  Who knows, maybe we will learn something new about condors and colors!

Tracking Condors, One Day at a Time by Zeka Kuspa

It is the job of California condor release site managers to monitor the condor flock. What this means is that they must attempt to locate every condor in their region on a daily basis. This kind of monitoring is above and beyond what is done for other species. Can you imagine trying to locate every single bluebird or coyote on earth, every day of the year? Such a feat is made possible only by the year-round work of biologists and volunteers, technologies such as radio and satellite telemetry (a.k.a. GPS), the regular capture of individuals for wing-tagging and blood lead tests, and the restricted condor population and range. Even with these advantages, it is a rare day that every individual bird is contacted. Once a condor has been off the radar for more than three days, targeted attempts are made to get a “visual” (visual observation) or a “signal” (radio-transmitter signal). After 5-7 days flights are chartered to search the remote parts of the condor range for the missing bird. Finding missing condors is important whether they are living or dead. If a condor is sick or injured, then they can be captured and treated. If they have been killed, determining the causes of death is also vital to the success of the program.

As an intern for Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park, I got the opportunity to track these amazing birds in the wild. Here’s an abridged description of a tracking day, one of the essential management responsibilities of California condor recovery partners:

A day of tracking usually starts at 9 a.m. or later, when condors are up and moving. Thermal updrafts, which occur when the ground is warmed by the sun and the surrounding air rises, are a boon to a foraging condor. So condor watching doesn’t require the pre-dawn motivation that other bird watchers must muster. Once at the office, we look at our records for the previous day’s condor activity and set our game plan for the day based on specific individuals we are looking for, or where a wild carcass may have been spotted.

As we drive or hike through condor territory we stop often to “take signals.” We receive the signals emitted by radio-transmitters on the birds wings or tail feathers, using a directional antenna and handheld receiver (as pictured). Since each condor has its own unique frequencies, we can tell who we’re hearing, and in what direction they are from our location. Additionally, by listening closely to the intensity of the signal we can make some assumptions about distance from the observer, and whether the bird is perched or flying. Over the course of the day we may get multiple signals from the same bird that may indicate longer range movements within their range (between canyons or even between release sites). Over the course of a tracking day we will also make visual observations of the condors we come across. These observations may just be a flyby, but when we’re lucky we might get to see the birds feed, or display mating behavior. All of this information is recorded in order to document the relative health of the bird (e.g. no symptoms of lead poisoning), monitor breeding efforts, and provide insight into location of the bird if they do go missing.

A tracking day usually ends at about 4 when condors are starting to seek out their roost for the night. When we make it back to the office we input this data and eventually incorporate it with GPS data downloaded from satellites. Hopefully, we contacted all the birds we were looking for! If not, we will increase our efforts to contact missing birds the following day.

tracking photo

Condor biologist Erin Brannon tracks condors in the mountains of Big Sur, CA.

recording data

Me taking signals from basecamp within Ventana Wildlife Society Sanctuary in Big Sur, CA.

group tracking

Volunteers and visitors taking signals and getting visuals of condors along the Highway 1 in Big Sur, CA.

 

Meet the Science Team: Carolyn Kurle

I was brought onto the condor project by my collaborator and friend Dr. Myra Finkelstein to help decipher potential variations in California condor diets among the flocks in central and southern California. Up until then, I had only seen live California condors at the Santa Barbara Zoo and stuffed condors in a diorama at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum. When the opportunity arose for me to join the US Fish and Wildlife Service for their summer condor round up and bird examination in summer 2011, I jumped at the chance.

My son Jeremiah was four years old at the time and he and my husband Christian had already accompanied me on several field excursions related to my other projects, so I invited them along for three days at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. We drove to their field site and met with the scientists who would be rounding up the birds for health monitoring, testing for lead poisoning, and blood sampling and drove to the condor pen. It was over 100 degrees, so very hot and somewhat desolate, but beautiful.

My job was minimal – watch the USFWS personnel catch the condors from the capture pen, label the blood collection vials and hand them to the scientists drawing blood, and keep my blood samples cold in a small cooler I had brought along for sample transport. I would spin the blood in a centrifuge later, back at our hotel, to separate the red blood cells from the plasma portion of the blood. I would later prepare these samples for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis in my lab at the University of California San Diego. I then combined these data with isotope data from blood samples previously collected from these southern California condors and from birds in the central California flock to better understand potential dietary differences between the flocks and how these diet differences affect the health and well-being of the condors.

The most amazing things about being up close to California condors were their incredible size and their overwhelmingly ugly-but-beautiful faces. It’s one thing to know that condors are the largest terrestrial bird in North America, with wingspans that range to three meters, but it’s another thing to actually see these birds up close and truly understand what such a large size really means. And, up close, their faces are so incredibly fierce and intimidating, that one can clearly see they share a common ancestor with dinosaurs. These birds look dangerous, but they were very mellow to handle and the USFWS personnel did an excellent job processing each bird. I have worked with many animals species in my work as a food web ecologist, but the condors are definitely one of my favorites. Especially because I got to share the experience with my young son.

Kurle blog

Dr. Carolyn Kurle and her then 4 year old son Jeremiah getting their first glimpse of free-flying California condors at the USFWS capturing pen in summer 2011 at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Southern California.

Kurle blog 2

The incredibly large wingspan of a California condor.

kurle blog 3

Dr. Kurle and her son organizing blood samples and preparing tubes for blood collection.

Kurle blog 4

The beautifully “ugly” face of the California condor.

Update on lead poisoned condors 463 and 481

Update from The Condor Keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo Condor Lead Treatment Center on the condition of 463 and 481, who are being treated for extremely high lead levels. Condors 463 and 481 have both worn black underline tags but now wear white tags (white63 and white81). This update highlights the heroic and tireless efforts of the Condor Keepers for the survival of the condors.

California Condors , male 463 (left) and female 481 are still in the LA Zoo condor lead treatment center after a big meal and a nice bath. Both experienced unbelievable blood lead levels 463’s blood lead level was 450 micrograms per deciliter(4.5 ppm) when he arrived at the zoo on May 29, 2014. This is probably a lethal level in any other bird. He had numerous metal densities in his crop and stomach which had to be surgically removed with two different incisions. One in the crop and one in the abdomen/ventriculus. 463 has been recovering for almost 7 WEEKS here at the zoo. He became very sick from lead toxicity and lost body weight to the tune of 4 pounds(down to about 12 pounds of body weight). He has since gained about 2 pounds in the last 2 weeks but is on lots of meds to ward off infection to his debilitated immune and digestive system. Us keepers have to manually push food from his crop into his stomach because he cant do it himself. He has been spending his nights in doors because of his inability to thermo regulate. Tonight with be his first night outside in a couple of weeks.Female 481 came in insimilar condition on June 26, 2014 with several metal densities in the crop and abdomen. She seemed to be in better shape than 463 so surgery was postponed to see if we could get the metal out naturally. She is in similar shape to 463 but she came in with blood lead level of 560 micrograms per deciliter (5.6 ppm). Many birds with levels like this never live to tell the tale. Wish these two amazingly strong willed birds (and their keepers) luck in the next few weeks for a full recovery. Chandra David, Jenny Schmidt, Debbie Ciani. Michael Clark

 

California Condor Feathers Tell Harrowing Tale of Struggle and Survival: Guest post by Alex Tamura

Condor on the coast_Joe Burnett

photo by J. Burnett

The Wiyot Tribe of Humboldt Bay describes the origins of mankind through a tale of survival and rebirth. The creator of all things, Gouriqhdat Gaqilh, had become weary of the wicked ways of man and summoned a deluge to drown the Earth and destroy all living things. The sole survivor was the great Wiyot hero Shadash, or Condor, who started a new civilization cleansed of evil.

In 1860, about 100 Wiyot people were massacred while celebrating a ceremony honoring that tale of rebirth and survival. Like Condor, the tribe’s survivors endured. Today, the Wiyot still see condors—and condor feathers—as symbols of renewal. Recently, they performed their first World Renewal Ceremony in more than 150 years, with a gift of 48 condor feathers from the Sía Essential Species Repository. However, the jet-black plumage provides a glimpse into another story of survival—this time for the birds themselves.

These condor feathers reveal the chemical traces of lead poisoning, a serious continuing threat to the population in California. Despite decades of progress, scientists still intensively manage the birds in the wild and continue to treat the ones exposed to lead. A new state law offers hope that the birds may endure for centuries, but lead poisoningonce unseen and unappreciated—continues to play a part in their private lives today.

UC Santa Cruz toxicologist Myra Finkelstein is one of the researchers using feathers to tell this story. “Analyzing their feathers has really become a powerful way to understand what’s going on with these birds when they’re out there in the wild,” Finkelstein says.

The California condor is one of North America’s most impressive and rare birds. It is the largest land bird on the continent, with a wingspan stretching nearly 10 feet. Wild condors can soar as high as 15,000 feet, and they fly up to 120 miles per day. With their large, cherry-colored eyes, the bald-headed birds scrupulously survey the terrain looking for carcasses of deer, cattle, and other animals. They devour carcasses, or carrion, with razor-sharp beaks, and they can store up to three pounds of meat in a part of their esophagus called a crop. Although these scavengers can survive two weeks without a scrap, they rarely have to because they have complementary admission to an all-you-can-eat buffet at feeding spots high in the back country, courtesy of researchers.

In 1987, the International Union for Conservation of Nature designated the birds “extinct in the wild.” Conservationists placed all 22 known California condors into captive breeding programs at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo. In 1992, researchers reintroduced the condors to the wild and nurtured the population back to more than 400 birds. Today, more than half of these condors are free-flying in California and nearby states, but they are still “critically endangered”—largely due to lead poisoning.

Survival has not been easy. Wild condors produce only one egg per clutch, and it takes them about six years to reach sexual maturity. This makes their population especially vulnerable to environmental hazards, such carrion contaminated by DDT, power lines, wind turbines, and microtrash: bottle caps, wires, and bullet casings. However, lead poisoning poses the greatest threat.

In one study, scientists at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources showed that lead bullets can fracture into tiny fragments, wildly scattering throughout an animal’s tissue like toxic hail. Only a few fragments are enough to poison a condor—equivalent to a few grains of sand. Condors unwittingly swallow these pieces after dining on unretrieved carrion killed by hunters.

Once this lead enters the bloodstream, it migrates into the birds’ tissue, bones, and feathers. Lead exposure irreversibly destroys the myelin sheath that protects sensitive nerves, setting off tremors and impairing coordination. Severe poisoning can shut down the digestive system. The only way to remove the lead is by flushing it out of their blood with chelation therapy, which binds the contaminant with a drug. But often, the damage is already too great.

Evidence that lead ammunition was harming condors first came from a UC Santa Cruz study in 2006. Environmental toxicologist Donald Smith and former graduate student Molly Church found that the blood-lead concentration of condors released in the wild had increased tenfold since they were in captivity. They determined that such severe lead poisoning could only arise if a bird had eaten lead and that the lead came from locally purchased bullets. In 2008, lead ammunition was banned in all condor ranges within California.

Even with the ban, things haven’t improved. “At least half of them have been lead poisoned and have had to be treated at the L.A. Zoo,” Finkelstein says. Today, paired with blood-lead analysis, tracing lead exposure through feathers has become a powerful research tool. Each condor is tested for lead at least twice a year—more frequently if the bird recently suffered from lead poisoning. But blood tests can only show the bird’s current lead poisoning. A single fully grown feather can reveal the bird’s lead exposure from the previous four months.

Testing the feathers require some high-tech tools. Researchers digest small pieces of a feather with acid, then pump it into an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer. This instrument uses a high-energy beam of electrons to ionize the feather solution with temperatures comparable to the surface of the sun. Now ionized, the feather atoms get sorted within a magnetic field, according to their mass and charge. A detector zeroes in on each sample, quantifying the feather’s lead.

Like human hair, feathers contain mostly carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen—the essential building blocks of life. But when a condor has eaten lead, large amounts of the heavy metal show up in its feathers. This painstaking approach allows Finkelstein to measure the degree of poisoning during the months before the blood tests.

“We’re realizing that the blood monitoring isn’t even catching the tip of the iceberg for the degree of lead exposure,” Finkelstein says. “Even though the blood monitoring shows the lead exposure is of epidemic proportions and that they’re chronically poisoned, the feathers show that it’s way worse.” She found that one-fifth of free-flying condors have near-lethal or lethal blood-lead levels. And according to her population model, condors will only successfully recover when lead is completely removed from the equation. “The number of birds born just doesn’t make up for the number of birds that die. That’s what needs to change,” Finkelstein says.

She and a collaborator are now improving the model to predict how lead poisoning impacts condor breeding and how hazards such as microtrash affect the birds as a group—as well as other animals. “Condors might serve as a canary in the coal mine for other species that we aren’t actively tracking on a daily basis, but who are also foraging on animals shot with lead,” Finkelstein says.

The birds have a generously funded and well-staffed support system, which many other species don’t have. Scientists track condors using radio and GPS transponders. Indeed, the program’s researchers are daring adventurers, flying near treacherous ranges, and rappelling into unexplored ravines to find injured, poisoned, and deceased condors. The team performs full necropsies on each dead condor they recover to determine its cause of death.

“We know that other species are dying from lead poisoning, but we can make the link even stronger with the condors,” Finkelstein notes. “The amount of hands-on knowledge we’ve gained from them is phenomenal.”

California condors also have new allies who don’t need to leave home to find adventure: citizen scientists. Using the online Condor Watch program, condor fans can explore more than 170,000 photos taken at feeding stations. This helps researchers keep track of the birds and their wildlife neighbors, such as mountain lions, bears, and feral pigs. With each click, users can discover tidbits about each tagged condor. For instance, condor #32—the son of #42 and #39—was hatched in 2004 at the L.A. Zoo and is “still kickin’.” Aspiring condor aficionados can aid scientists and learn about their new feathered friends at the same time.

The scientific studies and public support are making a difference. In late 2013, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 711 after reviewing expert testimonies and the results of Finkelstein’s research. The bill will ban all lead ammunition in California by 2019, marking a transition into a safer era for condors and other scavengers.

At least that is Finkelstein’s hope. She believes that the new law, alternative hunting ammunition, and increased public outreach through programs like Condor Watch will help the California condor population grow, stabilize, and thrive. But the threat of extinction is still very real. Californian zoos and organizations continue to treat lead-poisoned condors with chelation therapy. Despite the odds, the California condor may survive its own near extinction, much like its heroic namesake and the Wiyot people that revere them both.

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photo by D. Smith

Alex Tamura, an undergraduate majoring in astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, wrote this story in spring 2014 for SCIC 160: Introduction to Science Writing.