Archive by Author | myraef

Special guest blog: Hunters: Let’s Get the Lead Out

When I was a boy fishing in the Rocky Mountains I thought nothing about biting down on lead split shot sinkers so I could cast my worms into the lake; but that doesn’t mean I’m going to teach my kids that biting lead is a good idea.

The science is clear that lead is a potent toxin.  It is toxic to humans and animals.  There is no safe amount of lead exposure.

Paint doesn’t have lead anymore.  Nor solder for copper pipes.  Neither does gasoline.  Since the late 70s it has been illegal to hunt waterfowl with lead shot.  When the non-toxic shot laws were originally created I’m sure that gun rights advocates (like I am) decried this as the first step to ban all shotgun ammunition or all waterfowl hunting.  The result instead has been near universal acceptance of non-toxic shot as the right choice for waterfowl hunting.

Things change, and in the case of getting the lead out of our lives, change is a good thing.  This progression doesn’t represent an erosion of constitutional rights, but the logical response to new information.

I hunted with jacketed lead bullets for 10 years. Three years ago I found the first lead-free factory-loaded ammunition for my elk rifle – a 7mm Remington Magnum.  The Barnes VOR-TX is made with a 140 grain solid copper bullet – a little lighter than the 165 grain lead bullets I had hunted with.  I took a box to the range to be sure they shot well from my rifle.  I had very satisfactory results with groups that were only limited by my ability to shoot.

In two hunting seasons since, I have shot at and harvested four animals with lead free bullets: two white tail deer with a .243 and two elk with my 7mm.  The bullets’ stopping power was indistinguishable from the lead bullets I have used for years. A box of Barnes lead free factory loads costs only a few dollars more than comparable quality lead ammo.


Hunting with lead free ammunition sends the message that you as a sportsperson care about your health, your family’s health, and the health of the environment.  It shows that you are a responsible hunter who wants to pass on your hunting traditions more than you need to cling to which specific metal your bullets are cast from.

Hunters have a long history of supporting and leading wildlife conservation efforts. This is an easy issue where we can be leaders. There are excellent ammo alternatives for lead, whatever you hunt. Let’s show that we can get the lead out of hunting, for wildlife, for the environment and for our health.

Scott Copeland, Lander, WY

Link to an Editorial in the Journal Environmental Health Perspectives on the health risks of lead ammunition:


California condors are chronically poisoned by lead

In 1982 there were only 22 California condors left in the world – so it is not surprising they are considered one of the rarest birds on earth! To save condors from extinction captive breeding programs were established. The captive breeding program has been very successful, and today there are over 400 condors, approximately half of which are in zoos and half in the wild. However, this success is only due to the daily efforts of large numbers of zoo staff, biologists and volunteers, who maintain the breeding program, as well as monitor every wild condor almost every day.

The main threat to free-flying California condors was believed to be lead poisoning but the full extent of this threat was not known when we started our research program about six years ago. So, we performed a comprehensive study to investigate the impact and source of lead exposure to condors. We found that since the release program began condors have been chronically exposed to harmful levels of lead. Alarmingly, almost half of all condors in the wild in California have had lead poisoning severe enough to require medical treatment and in a recent study, the majority of adult condor deaths were attributed to lead poisoning (10 out of 15 adult mortalities for which cause of death was determined, see Rideout et al. 2012 for details on the causes of mortality in California condors).

condor being treated

California condor 286 being treated for lead poisoning at the California condor breeding facility, Los Angeles Zoo. Unfortunately 286 did not survive his lead poisoning episode, which is tragically not uncommon given that lead poisoning has been shown to be the number one reason that free-flying juvenile and adult condors die.  Photo courtesy of Mike Clark

We used lead isotopic analysis, which can provide a signature of the sources of lead exposure, and showed that lead-based ammunition is the principal source of lead poisoning in condors. Condors are scavengers and when they feed on a carcass that has been shot with lead ammunition they can ingest some of the lead, and even a few small fragments – equivalent to a couple of grains of sand – contain enough lead to poison a condor. Our research also showed that the condor’s current apparent recovery is solely due to intensive ongoing management and, if this management is stopped, the condors will once again be at risk for extinction within a few decades. Ultimately we determined that the condor’s only hope of achieving true recovery is dependent upon the elimination or substantial reduction of lead poisoning. For more information on this study see Finkelstein et al. 2012.

Meet the Science Team: Holly Copeland, falling in love with condors

I wasn’t expecting to see a condor.

My girlfriends and I were hiking the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park on a brisk November morning several years ago. As we walked along the spine of the trail out to the airy point overlooking the valley, one friend spotted a large black bird soaring along the edge of the 1000’ cliff. We first thought it was a vulture, but as it came closer, it was clear from the massive wingspan (condor wingspans can reach 9 ½ feet) that it was a condor.

Just then, a second condor emerged into view. The pair soared directly over us–close enough for us to see the GPS collars and read their tags. We literally lay down on the sandstone and watched as these ancient creatures circled the cliffs around us.

I fell in love.

holly and condor

Why would I find myself caring so much about this bald-headed, gawky looking creature? Perhaps because when I learned the story of how condors–whose relatives go back to the Pleistocene and were once widespread across the Americas–were brought back from the edge of extinction, seeing them in Zion felt miraculous.

Last Christmas my husband and I organized a family trip to Zion. We hiked the Angel’s Landing trail, scanning for condors the whole way. We didn’t see any that day, but just the possibility of seeing them meant so much to our family and I realized that were it not for the efforts of so many, my girls wouldn’t have a chance to see them. I am immensely grateful to all involved in bringing them back.

2013-12-29 10.57.39

Recently, when a scientist friend and mentor explained that his project needed a spatial ecologist to analyze trend data from GPS collars for condor populations in California and invited me to join the team, I jumped at the chance. I’m now involved analyzing spatial patterns and trends in condor data and helping to understand their movements, social, and foraging behavior.

Back in my home state of Wyoming, scientists have been monitoring lead levels in ravens and eagles in the Jackson Hole area, and found troubling data on lead poisoning in eagle populations (, but also successful reductions in lead levels from use of non-lead ammunition. Lead poisoning goes well beyond California condors and has significance for wildlife populations everywhere.

Citizen science is a fabulous new bridge between people and their environment. By inviting the public to join in the quest for scientific knowledge, we can create a new community of people engaging in and contributing to science, and in the case of Condor Watch, for condor conservation.

Connecting people to nature for conservation purposes is an idea that goes back to John Muir and the preservation of Yosemite. Now that old idea takes new forms through the power of the internet and through participation and education can help strengthen conservation efforts for many species, including condors.

Condor Watch – the first two weeks

Hi everyone, we have had a great first two weeks!  We are already about 3% done with the classifications, have had over 100,000 page views and lots of great discussions about the photos and condors.

Some fun finds in the photos:

Black bears, mountain lions and bobcats!

And then of course condors, lots of condors!

We wanted everyone to know we are listening to the feedback from these first two weeks and are working on making the site more fun.  A few of the things we are working on:

1) The ravens!  We are aware that marking a photo with 20+ ravens is tiresome and we are making changes to the site to make this process quicker.

2) ‘Other’ option – we are working on a way to help guide how to mark other animals (such as black bears!) in the photos.  We are very interested in the different species that use the condor feeding stations.

3) The infamous ability to go back. We know that it is frustrating if you click the ‘all animals marked’ option but are not done and can’t go back – we are working on a way to fix this.

4) The mis IDs. A mis ID is when you put in a tag number but the condor bio comes up as unidentified or a bird that died before the photo was taken (nicknamed ‘zombie condors’): We (actually Vickie Bakker, our data matron extraordinaire) is spending an enormous amount of time checking those mis IDs that are reported and ferreting out why. We have fixed some of the major issues but please do continue to report the mis IDs you see so we can try and fix them all!  We have started a discussion board for people to post their mis-IDs, under “Science Board”, “The Objects” and titled: “Unknown’ Numbers -=- list ’em here – check if already listed”. Also, be assured that even though the ID might have come up “unknown” on the site, we can go back and cross reference this to be able to identify these birds for our research purposes. So, although it is not as satisfying for you, valuable data are still being generated.

So, we want to send a huge thank you to the Zooniverse community for participating in Condor Watch and know that we are working on sorting out these last few details to make this an even more fun and fabulous project!  We do monitor the discussion boards regularly so let us know what you think!

The Science Team

Get to know the stars of Condor Watch!

(no, not the ravens – although understandably they do seem to dominate some of the photos, the CONDORS!)


California Condors (scientific name Gymnogyps californianus) are New World Vultures and became extinct in the wild in the mid-1980’s. Luckily very devoted conservation efforts led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service have brought this magnificent bird back from the brink of extinction and today over there are over 400 condors in the world – with about half of the population in the wild (or as we call them ‘free-flying’). Captive- bred condors are released into the wild from release sites in Arizona, California, and Baja California Mexico. As of Jan 31st 2014, there was a worldwide population of 410 California condors, with 232 of these birds “free-flying” associated with the following release site locations: 128 in California, 75 in Arizona and 29 in Baja California Mexico.

Condor Watch currently only has photos from California, but we hope in the future to expand to photos from the Mexico and Arizona flocks as well! All free-flying condors are tagged with ID numbers (which is why we can give you a bio on each bird!) but they all should have (unless they lost it) also a radio transmitter and sometimes even a GPS transmitter so the condor biologists can track their movements on a near daily basis.

Condors are long-lived animals, with a lifespan believed to be upwards of 60-70 years! They form long-term relationships, and typically will stay with the same mate for life. They can only raise one chick per year, and normally start breeding at 6 to 8 years of age (when they achieve their full adult plumage and coloring). Condors do not build a nest per say but will lay an egg in a cave, on a cliff, rock crevice or even a hollowed out part of a tree – which makes it interesting for the condor biologists to check on the egg! Both parents care for the chick until fledgling, which is ~7 months after the egg is laid. After fledgling the chick is still dependent on its parents for several more months and sometimes you might even see a parent with its chick in one of the photos!

We think condors are great and we hope you do too. To answer some of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) we are seeing on the discussion boards we have started a FAQ page linked to this blog:


Welcome to Condor Watch!

Hi and thank you for participating in Condor Watch!  We are very excited about our project and hope you will be too.  California condors are one of the rarest birds on earth and through Condor Watch we hope you will get know our California flock.  We are going to analyze data that Condor Watch provides on which birds hang out together alongside all the data we have compiled on how often these birds are lead poisoned to see if we can identify social behaviors that might put a condor at greater risk for lead poisoning. In addition to the lead exposure question, we hope Condor Watch will more broadly increase our understanding of the flock’s social structure (we considered calling the site “Condor Facebook”) and how an individual bird’s place in the flock relates to its space use, breeding behavior, and exposure to other contaminants. Someone from the science team will be posting blogs and monitoring the discussion page regularly – so please let us know if you have questions about our project and do tag photos where you see something interesting.

Over the next few months, we will be posting blogs from each member of the Science Team so that you can get to know us a little better.  We are excited to have you join us – we hope you enjoy watching condors as much as we do!

The Science Team.