Seeing California Condors flying high in the Arizona sky was one of the most thrilling events of my life. But even as I am so deeply delighted by the reintroduction of them to California and Arizona, I’m saddened at the problems they still face. The Peregrine Fund maintains a web page with detailed information on each condor released in Arizona since December 12, 1996. Of the six birds set free on that historical day, five are now dead, only one from a natural cause—Golden Eagle predation. One female died as a breeding adult from swallowing coins. This horrible and wasteful cause of death seems related to female condors’ need for calcium during the breeding season—they pick up shiny objects which would in nature be limited to pieces of bone and small bits of minerals. Another breeding adult female condor released in 2002 suffered the same fate. We humans pride ourselves on being intellectually superior to other animals, but how smart is it to toss toxic, zinc-laden pennies into the Grand Canyon?
Two of the first-released condors died from lead poisoning. In 2008, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law in California the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, which prohibits the use of lead shot or bullets in the area of California where condors concentrate, but no such law has been passed in Arizona or Utah. Many people think that we don’t need government to impose laws with regard to these kinds of issues—that education will suffice—but lead is still the most prevalent cause of death for condors: a total of 19 are now known to have been killed by lead poisoning since 2000, directly related to hunters’ use of lead bullets and shot, and several condors have gone missing in Utah during and within a month or two after hunting seasons, when loss due to lead poisoning is most common. In 2010, blood samples showed that 72 % of captured birds had been exposed to lead, with 34 of them requiring treatment for lead poisoning. Even if hunting with lead throughout the range of condors were banned, people wouldn’t necessarily comply—after all, three condors were killed in Arizona directly by shooting.
One of the original condors was killed in a collision with a transmission line less than a year after release. So the Peregrine Fund people worked out training techniques to get captive-bred chicks to avoid these lines. Since then, no more have been killed by lines. Condors are curious and intelligent, and some of the originally-released birds were too incautious near park visitors, so before release, captive-reared birds were also trained to avoid people.
As of October 31, there are 205 California Condors in the wild: 111 in central and southern California, 23 in Baja California, and 71 in the Grand Canyon area of Arizona and up into Utah. 27 wild-fledged birds now live in California, 1 in Baja California, and 12 in Arizona. Thanks to the first captive breeding programs at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo, and additional programs at the Oregon Zoo and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, there are continuing to be releases of adolescent birds that may ultimately strengthen numbers of the California Condor until it’s truly self-sustaining again. But it’s going to take public will to prevent more of the tragic and senseless condor deaths that the project has so far endured.