Archive | June 2014

Condor news (6/28/14)

Condor Watch photo highlights

When you look through Talk at all the beautiful, interesting, funny, and unusual photos, and the astute and humorous comments of our Condor Watchers, it’s almost impossible to select just a few highlights.  We could have picked 100.  In the interest of not overwhelming you all, here are just a few.

  • And here’s an excellent view of unusual tag A4, which looks confoundingly like 44, reported by miltonbosch. As wreness would say, Bravo, you win a fish!Generic Fish clip art - vector clip art online, royalty free ...

It’s always fun to see some of the other charismatic fauna that frequent the feeding stations.

Condor news and views from around the web:

  • Mike Clark, LA Zoo’s condor keeper, shared this delightful video of a condor pool party. Unfortunately, the of the main reasons wild condors end up in the zoo is treatment for lead poisoning:
  • This radio piece features an interview with the Yurok tribe about the proposal to release condors on the North Coast in California. “They haven’t really been seen in this area for 100 years,”says Tiana Williams, a biologist and Yurok tribal member, “but they figure heavily in our stories and feature heavily in our world renewal ceremonies.”
  • Several different video clips have been posted recently of action at feeding stations and elsewhere that we miss in our photo stills. Not for the squeamish, here a condor eats a very gloopy calf lung, courtesy of Hunting with Non-lead Bullets:   And while it doesn’t always work out this way, here’s a clip of a condor chasing an eagle from a carcass, also from Hunting with Non-lead Bullets:
  • Condors sometimes are lured into dangerous situations by road kill. Here a tourist filmed a condor causing a traffic jam on the highway in the Big Sur area. It’s Yellow8, aka 208, a female hatched in 1999:
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service posted a clip of a 60-day old chick dancing the hokey pokey in its nest cave:
  • Finally, we’ll leave off on some sad notes, the ones that for now always play in the background as we work for the future of condors. First, here’s a heart-breaking video of condor 401, in the final throes of lead poisoning. This guy hatched in 2006 and had been treated at least 5 times for lead poisoning. RIP 401 — you shouldn’t have had to endure this.
  • And a photo of what the sand looks like after being traversed by a lead poisoned condor. The Peregrine Fund offers this description: When a California Condor suffers from severe lead-poisoning, the digestive system paralyzes, unable to pass food or water through the system. The bird is hungry, losing weight, dehydrated, and continues to forage and feed, despite the distended crop full of rotting meat. It will continue to pack food in, because despite the greater than 3lbs of food it possesses in the crop, it feels starved and becomes anemic. This condition, we call crop-stasis, is usually the last telling sign that the bird is withering away, and it will not be long before it dies. When a 13-yr-old male condor spends days on a beach next to the river, withering away, unable to fly, and barely able to walk, dragging his wings in the sand cause his strength can no longer hold them up, but he continues to saunter the 20ft to the river to drink water, it looks like this…

Upcoming events:

Anyone living near southern California can attend a free screening of A Condor’s Shadow and meet Dolly, a 3-year old condor at An Evening With Condors and Friends – July 18th 7-9:30PM @Ojai, CA Libbey Bowl


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.


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.

Constructing the social network of California Condors

Here at Condor Watch, we are using the data we glean from the feeding stations to ask many different questions that will help us better understand the ecology of California Condors. One of the major goals of Condor Watch is to understand how individual condors feed together. Using the identities of tagged individuals in photos, we can begin to construct the social network of California Condors. When you hear “social network”, you probably think of Facebook, Twitter, etc. And in effect, we are trying to building the “Facebook of Condors”. That is, we’d like to know which condors are “friends” that feed together, and potentially lead each other to feeding sites.

By combining information about individual histories of lead poisoning and the social network across time, we hope to understand how social relationships might affect the spread of lead poisoning through the population. We hope that this type of analysis will reveal important pieces of the puzzle for mitigating the effects of lead poisoning in this highly endangered species.

How things spread through social networks

The study of social networks originated at the intersection of sociology and mathematics, but it has increasingly become an important tool for ecologists as well. These studies have shown us how “social contagion” can facilitate the spread of all kinds of things–behaviors, ideas, germs, etc. Thus, understanding the structures of the social networks in which we live can help us who smokes or gains weight, or how we think and feel (see this TED Talk  by Nicholas Christakis for a summary).

What do we know about social networks in animals? There has been an explosion of recent research investigating this question, and the results have been fascinating. For example, studies of animal social networks have shown that unique foraging strategies spread through social networks in monkeys, birdsas well as whales. Social networks are also important to the spread of diseases that are threatening animal populations around the world. For example, network structure can help explain how facial tumor disease spreads in Tasmanian Devils.

How to build the social network of California Condors

So, how can we apply these ideas about social networks to understand the dynamics of lead poisoning in California Condors? THIS IS WHERE WE NEED YOUR HELP! With your efforts in identifying individual birds in our photographs, we can start to piece together the social network of condors. Here is a little example of how this works:

Let’s say you saw these 5 photos…


From these photos, we can start to build a social network. It might look something like this:


Here, each circle, or “node” represents an individual condor, and the lines connecting them represent their propensity to feed together. Thus, individuals 3 and 12 are connected by a thick line because they always feed together (whenever 3 is seen, 12 is also there). We can already start to see some features of this hypothetical social network. For example:

– There are two clusters of individuals that often feed with each other (3, 6, and 12 vs. 31 and 5).

– Individual 14 feeds sometimes with both clusters–she is a “connector” of social clusters.

And these two patterns can have implications for the spread of lead poisoning if these social relationships turn out to be important. Say #31 and #5 find a lead-laden carcass and get lead poisoning. But is individual #3 likely to also get lead poisoning from this carcass? This might depend in part on #14–if she learns where the carcass is from #31 and #5, then this information might get passed on to the others more rapidly. This is the importance of the “connector” or “social broker”–she facilitates the spread of information across the entire network, and this might be the key to understanding who gets poisoned and why.

In truth, we do not yet know whether lead poisoning spreads this way–this is just one hypothesis. The first step is to get these valuable data from the photographs we have and start understanding what the “Facebook of Condors” looks like. This is one way in which your efforts on Condor Watch will help in the larger goal of conserving these magnificent birds. We greatly appreciate your help!!

Integrating other data

The social network analysis is only one of many datasets and analytical tools we will be using to help conserve these majestic birds. From the photographs, we will also be looking at other social dynamics such as social dominance–e.g., are dominant or subordinate birds more susceptible to lead poisoning? For some birds, we are also collecting detailed data on their home ranges using GPS units mounted on their wing tags (you can sometimes see these in the photos). Ongoing studies on physiology and toxicology of lead poisoning are key to understanding the impact of lead on an individual level (see this previous post). These and other data sets will ultimately be used to better understand what factors help or hinder the recovery of the condor population. A really exciting aspect of the Condor Watch project is that it is a true collaboration  between behavioral ecologists, spatial ecologists, ecotoxicologists, population ecologists and citizen scientists!

We will continue to post more tidbits on our scientific plans and progress, so please keep checking back!