Intensive Condor Care

Banning Lead Bullets and Providing Vaccines

California"s condors are soaring again, thanks to both state and private programs.© Photos by Chuck Graham

In what could be a potential boon for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) California Condor Recovery Program, the owner of Tejon Ranch—the largest private game preserve in California—an-nounced the banning of lead bullets in time for the 2008 hunting season. Tejon Ranch stretches across the southern San Joaquin Valley and is frequented by the critically endangered condors foraging for carcasses on its 270,000 acres. Ranch president Robert Stine announced the ban last March, convinced that the ammunition is poisoning North America’s largest flying land bird.

Hunters will likely use copper bullets for larger game and steel pellets for smaller game and fowl. Tejon Ranch brings in more than 1,800 hunters annually, and the ranch’s diverse topography is home to an array of wildlife including Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, wild boar, antelope, turkeys, black bear, bobcats, mountain lions, doves and quail.

"We’re very happy Tejon Ranch has taken such an optimistic outlook," says Jessie Grantham, California Condor coordinator and team leader for field programs in Southern California for FWS. "It’s a great step forward, and I think it’s going to be leading the effort to encourage the use of nontoxic ammunition—not just within the range of the condor, but everywhere."

The condor recovery program has lost many birds to lead poisoning since FWS began releasing condors in 1992, but none in the last three years. Still, many condors captured at feeding stations in the wild have been tested with high levels of lead in their blood. The most recent example involved four birds feeding on a bullet-ridden cattle carcass. Three of those condors—all breeders—were captured and sent to the Los Angeles Zoo for chelation therapy—lead is reabsorbed by a chemical and then taken out of the blood, flushing the birds" systems.

The condor has become the "poster child" for taking lead out of the environment, but lead bullets also affect other raptors, including Bald and Golden Eagles and mammals that feed on carrion. And humans need to be cautious, too, says Grantham. "It’s the combination of human health and this critically endangered species," he says. "People see how lead is killing this animal and the potential effect it can have on humans."

The goal of the recovery plan is to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California, the other in Arizona. Each region will have 150 condors with at least 15 breeding pairs and another 150 birds in captive breeding facilities. To enhance their numbers, biologists will use condor puppets to rear some of the chicks.

"Because we have only so many breeders, we maximize egg production," explains Chris Barr, deputy project leader of the condor program. "We may pull the first egg and allow the parents to recycle and lay another egg. We might let them incubate the second egg, while the first is reared with a puppet." It’s known as "double clutching" when parents lose the first egg and then generate another.

Barr says that as a stable population is established in the wild, the program will shift into maintenance mode. "There’s not a huge population in the captive pool, but with these management techniques in place we can get the numbers up," he says.

Before captive-bred condors are ready for release, they must pass power pole aversion training. When a condor lands on a power pole inside a pen, the raptors receive a light shock to discourage roosting there. The training has been a success, but the recovery program goes one step further.

"We work closely with power companies to look at powerlines that could be buried or modified so they’re not available for condors," Barr says. A population at risk for powerline accidents is expanding its range in the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur, California. However, most condors taken back to flight pens steer clear of power poles.

Most condor deaths are attributed to lead poisoning, but some have perished in wildfires or attacks by Golden Eagles. One was lost in a rare drowning, and the matriarch of the program, Adult Condor 8 (AC8), was killed by a hunter in 2004. She was the last of the wild population used for captive breeding in 1987, and was released to her old haunts 17 years later, well past her breeding age.

In 2005, another condor killer surfaced. West Nile Virus claimed a newly born condor chick in its nest cave in the Sespe Wilderness, part of the Los Padres National Forest. All the wild birds have been inoculated, but it’s the newborn chicks that are vulnerable to the disease. "What we’re often missing are the chicks produced in the wild," says Barr. "There’s a period of time before we’re able to trap them and get them that vaccination."

Young condors fledge their nest in six months, but are still dependent on their parents for at least another year. But if a chick is in poor health, biologists will rappel into the nest cave and give it the West Nile vaccination.

The recovery team works closely with its veterinarian partners from the federal Center of Disease Control, sharing data and inoculation success rates. Last year was a mild one for West Nile in California, and no condors were lost to the disease. And it’s still not certain if the vaccination is effective for the life span of a condor.

"Theoretically it should be for life, but we do blood tests on the birds, and sometimes they need a booster," says Barr.