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Sophie Osborn on Saving the California Condor

Posted By Paul Comstock On June 15, 2007 @ 7:10 pm In Environment,Nature,Non-Fiction Reviews | 14 Comments

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.

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