California Literary Review

Sophie Osborn on Saving the California Condor


June 15th, 2007 at 7:10 pm

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Sophie Osborn

Sophie Osborn was Field Manager for the Peregrine Fund’s California Condor Restoration Project in Arizona. Her new book Condors in Canyon Country recounts the story of the California condor’s return to the wild.

How close to extinction were the California condors and what was the cause?
At the populations’ low point in 1982, only 22 California condors remained – 21 in the wild and one in captivity. Their numbers were decimated by years of shooting and poisoning. The poisoning came in two forms: condors became indirect targets when they fed on carcasses that had been laced with poisons to kill predators such as coyotes; condors also succumbed to lead poisoning. Lead bullets fragment upon impacting an animal, losing as much as 30% of their mass. Many condors that fed on hunter-killed animals or animal remains ingested minute lead fragments and subsequently died. Condors have a slow reproductive rate. They do not reach sexual maturity until they are 5-6 years old and typically produce one egg every other year. Condors were unable to reproduce fast enough to compensate for the high number of losses in their population.
In trying to save the condor, what ideas were considered and what plan was ultimately implemented?
Widely differing views on what was threatening California condors and how to save them sharply divided the conservation community for much of the 20th century. For a long time, habitat loss was thought to be a key factor in their demise. Accordingly, habitat was set aside for condors, yet their numbers continued to decline. Later, biologists outfitted condors with radio-transmitters so as to monitor the birds’ fates and finally began to discover why condors were dying. When it became clear that drastic methods were required to save the species, a captive breeding program was developed and the last remaining wild condors were brought into captivity. Five years later, captive-raised condors were released back to the wild, first in California, then in Arizona (the subject of my book), and finally in Baja California, Mexico. However, the threats that brought condors to the brink of extinction still remain. Lead poisoning continues to be the number one killer of reintroduced condors. Efforts to encourage hunters to use non-lead ammunition in the condor’s range are ongoing.
Tell us about the California condor as a species. To which birds are they most closely related and how do they behave in the wild?
California condors are curious, intelligent, and playful. They are very gregarious and often feed, bathe, roost, and play together. They investigate the world around them with their bills, tugging and tearing at new and interesting objects. Whenever I watch them playing (tug-of-war and punting empty water bottles around with their bills are two of their favorite “games”), they remind me of a group of puppies or a troupe of monkeys. This may be surprising to those that are unfamiliar with this large, carrion-feeding bird, but rings true with anyone that has observed them. Each condor has a unique, readily identifiable personality. I came to know every condor in the Arizona population while working with them and delighted in observing their fascinating behavior and endlessly entertaining interactions.
Condors are part of the New World vulture family and are closely related to storks (rather than birds of prey). Behaviorally, condors are very similar to ravens – curious, bold, intelligent, and sometimes unwary around humans. If you could cross a raven with a St. Bernard dog, I think the outcome would be much like a condor!

Photograph by Meng Tang

What were the most significant events, both positive and negative, during this process of reintroducing condors to their natural habitat?
The most significant negative events involved the shooting of reintroduced condors, lead poisoning incidents that killed multiple condors, and situations in which young condors exhibited excessive unwariness around people. Condors are very curious and have few natural predators. Since captive-raised condors are reintroduced to the wild without their parents and therefore cannot benefit from their guidance, field biologists have had to teach excessively curious condors to behave as wild condors should. Field biologists consistently harass condors that show a proclivity for approaching people or landing on human structures. This “hazing” program has helped teach young condors to behave appropriately and vastly improved the behavior of reintroduced condors.
The most significant positive events have involved captive-raised and reintroduced condors reproducing in the wild. The first captive-raised condors were released to the wild in California in 1992 and in northern Arizona in 1996. Biologists then had to wait many years for the young condors to reach adulthood. In 2001, I was fortunate to document the first confirmed condor egg laid in the wild in 15 years and the first laid by a reintroduced condor. Although several condors hatched the following year, none survived to fledging age (the age at which condors leave their cave-site nests). In November 2003, I was privileged to be one of two people to witness the first successful fledging of a wild-hatched condor. It was an extraordinary moment and a tremendous milestone in the condor recovery program.
What is the greatest threat to the success of this program?
Lead poisoning is unquestionably the greatest threat to the success of the condor recovery program. Whether or not California condors ultimately survive as a species will depend on our willingness to eliminate the use of lead bullets in the condor’s range. Hunting itself is extraordinarily beneficial to condors. One study found that over 30,000 large animal carcasses and field-dressed visceral remains are left in the field in the condor’s California range each year. This bounty would be highly beneficial to condors and other scavengers were it not for the presence of lead fragments in these carcasses. Condors are wide-ranging, opportunistic creatures that, based on their biology, should be thriving. But four adult condors in Arizona died as a result of lead poisoning after the fall 2006 hunting season. Mortality levels such as these are unsustainable from a population standpoint.
Lead poses a risk to bald eagles, golden eagles, and a host of other scavengers as well. And just as bird deaths alerted us to the dangers of DDT, condor deaths from lead poisoning are raising our awareness of the potential risk that we humans face by eating hunter-killed wild game. Recent x-ray studies by the non-profit group, The Peregrine Fund, revealed a terrifyingly wide scatter of lead fragments as bullets passed through hunter-killed deer. X-rays of packaged game meat also revealed the presence of lead fragments. I think hunters need to start demanding more research into the human health impacts of hunting with lead bullets. Saving condors may benefit us more than we ever imagined.
Your Master’s degree is in something called “Organismal Biology.” What does that mean and would you tell us about some of the other environmental work you’ve done outside of the condor program?
Organismal Biology is essentially the study of organisms as opposed to the study of cells and components that make up organisms (microbiology). My emphasis was ornithology – the study of birds – and my master’s study focused on the effect of streamside development on the American dipper, North America’s only aquatic songbird. Prior to working with condors, I worked on a variety of research and conservation projects. I helped reintroduce peregrine falcons and Hawaiian crows and contributed to research on a variety of hawks and eagles in the western U.S. I also studied and helped protect parrots in Guatemala, ducks in Argentina, and a little-known cloud-forest eagle in Peru.
A lot of money was spent on the condor program and it has involved much time and effort by many people. Why do you think it is justified?
A lot is a relative term. Approximately 35-40 million dollars have been spent over a 30-year period. In my mind, that’s a relatively modest sum for trying to save a creature that once soared over herds of mammoths and has captured the human imagination for hundreds of years. Given its biology, the species should be thriving and if we are not willing to save our largest flying land bird, what hope is there for less charismatic, less visible animals in North America? When we look at the salaries received by athletes, the amount we spend on fighting fires, or waging war, or exploring space, the cost of saving condors is paltry. In 1987, the year the last wild condor was brought into captivity, a Van Gogh painting sold for $49 million dollars. Is one, albeit spectacular, painting worth more to us than saving a species as uniquely magnificent as the California condor?
During my years of reintroducing condors in Arizona, I watched countless visitors to Grand Canyon National Park view condors for the first time. Their excitement, enthusiasm, and awe were palpable. Tourists that had no prior interest in birds and conservation were utterly captivated. The famed, timeless landscape of the Grand Canyon suddenly faded into insignificance as these people eagerly sought to learn more about the magnificent birds with the nine-foot wingspans that were floating overhead. Tourist after tourist claimed that seeing the condors “made” their trip. They want to keep condors flying because they are spectacular. Having come to know the condors as individuals and watched them delay going to roost at night because they were engaged in riotous play with some particularly fun “toys,” I want to preserve the species because there is nothing else like a California condor.
  • Pam Cox

    I have seen the California condor soar over Grand Canyon on numerous occasions and every time the sight brings tears to my eyes. Sophie’s book and the work she and all the others involved in this recovery program are nothing less than extraordinary!
    Thank you Sophie for writing this amazing book and being so passionate about this beautiful bird!

  • Elisabeth Osborn

    Having the amazing good luck to be Sophie’s mother, I have been able to spend many hours with these delightful,beautiful,clever and magnificent birds with a back-drop of the always magical Grand Canyon.
    Part of the experience was to listen to people standing around as the soaring Condors took their breath away. I heard people asking if the very small bird cruising with one of the Condors was it’s baby. It was, of course, a raven. The interest of the people at the South and North Rims looking for the Condors and learning so much about them, has been one of the most important experiences of my life. An
    enormously successful project.

  • Mark Mecikalski

    I love birds, and as a former sailplane pilot, soaring birds especially. We are planning a condor spotting trip this summer..will have to get this book.
    Mark Mecikalski, Tucson

  • MichaelLuna

    In or about 1985, I saw a California Condor on hiway 166, about 25 miles east of Santa Maria, the Cuyama Valley. I was driving my VW bug and there it was! A huge California Condor sitting on a dead tree stump along the shoulder of the road. There was a dear and fawn laying on the road. Road kill from a car, I imagine. I waited there in my bug for about 5-10 minutes admiring this great big beautiful bird. I was at awe and think loss of time. I finally got out of the car for a closer look. About 15 feet away. The bird appeared very innocent. It lofted slowy and within 10 seconds it was 150 feet in the air. Straight up. At that very moment a man came by and tossed(rolled) the doe and fawn over the cliffy road. The man never said anything to me, except that the bird had been hanging out in the area for some time. I was rather suspicious of him. How would he know, what’s he doin out here, does he have a weapon, etc. I got back in my car and drove away slowly, thinking about what that man was up to. This is the only time I have ever seen a condor in the wild. I didn’t have a camera. The friend that was with me commented, “what’s that?” “A California Condor,” I said. She was very-very impressed. At awe!

  • Rene Bersamin

    My daughter Victoria (she’s 11-years old now) and I spend time at the Grand Canyon whenever we can. We have been to the Grand Canyon five times in the last four years and each time was at least a week stay using park lodging accommodations. Sitting by the canyon rim watching for the California Condor is one of our favorite activity.

    The magnificent beauty of the canyon is never complete without the California Condors flying above and below as one looks down into the panorama. Whenever we reminisce about our trips, Victoria is always reminded and talks about the condors she saw zooming all over – above us and over the canyon! Following the first time she saw the flying California Condors, she went on reading books and articles to learn more about this magnificent flying bird. Sophie Osborn’s work and among others, their writings, and actually witnessing these birds fly in their habitat makes the next generation of Americans aware and concious about environmental conservation and beauty of preserving nature. It reminds everyone the role each must play to take care of the environment and Planet Earth.

    Thank you.

  • Mke Compton

    I’m curious about the location of any formal studies/research that identify the source of lead poisoning as coming from ammunition and how it managed to link the two together.


  • Dante

    Es importante esta labor tan loable en Cusco Peru queremos recuperar el Condor Andino ya que su poblacion esta bajando debido a varias causa asi el choque con cables electricos de alta tencion, yawar fiesta fiesta costumbrista donde se ata al condor ensima de un toro, caza por la falsa creencia de que el condor mata animales de los campesinos, entre otras.

    quisiera saber si me podria mandar informacion respecto de este programa y asi intercambiar informacion para no duplicar trabajos de investigacion atte

  • Christopher Osborn

    Way to go, Sis! I wish I could say that I am surprised, but this delightful young woman was looking after wildlife since she was a babe in the mountain pastures of Switzerland spending entire days of her young life in the company of a wonderful Canadian artist/nanny known to us all as ‘John’. Then on to the mountains of Vermont. Both her sisters are also engaged one way or the other in looking after our planet’s critters. So, thank you Liz for being such a caring, wonderfully supportive mother and guiding these, my favorite sisters, to such successful lives.
    Sophie you are the best, your book is awesome. That Lafarge bloodline is powerful. Your, now not so little niece, Roxane still talks about your time together in Idaho with the falcons and would love to see you again.
    Congratulations on a wonderful job. I am so proud of you.

  • Bruce Poole

    As hunter in ca. all my life I would be more than happy to switch over to non-toxic ammunition, not all hunters are opposed to this logical solution,
    thanks for all your work

  • Mindy

    My daughter Georgia loved looking at the condors keep up the good work.

  • http://ptn maks

    cool condor

  • Steve

    Incredible work. I admire your vision, principles, talent and drive!

  • Emma Apple

    My 6 year old is a huge fan of the California Condor (and Condors in general and birds, but California Condor is her most favorite) ever since seeing them in a documentary about the grand canyon. Ask her what she wants to be when she grows up and her answer is always ‘I’m going to be a Condor Rescuer’ she educates everyone she meets on the plight of California Condors, I wanted a detailed book for her to learn all about them and we choose Sophie’s amazing book. I read it to her and although the language is very advanced, she learns from it and we discuss it together and learn together about these amazing birds. We live in Chicago and haven’t had the honor of seeing them yet but I hope we do in the not too distant future.

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