Tracking Condors, One Day at a Time by Zeka Kuspa

It is the job of California condor release site managers to monitor the condor flock. What this means is that they must attempt to locate every condor in their region on a daily basis. This kind of monitoring is above and beyond what is done for other species. Can you imagine trying to locate every single bluebird or coyote on earth, every day of the year? Such a feat is made possible only by the year-round work of biologists and volunteers, technologies such as radio and satellite telemetry (a.k.a. GPS), the regular capture of individuals for wing-tagging and blood lead tests, and the restricted condor population and range. Even with these advantages, it is a rare day that every individual bird is contacted. Once a condor has been off the radar for more than three days, targeted attempts are made to get a “visual” (visual observation) or a “signal” (radio-transmitter signal). After 5-7 days flights are chartered to search the remote parts of the condor range for the missing bird. Finding missing condors is important whether they are living or dead. If a condor is sick or injured, then they can be captured and treated. If they have been killed, determining the causes of death is also vital to the success of the program.

As an intern for Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park, I got the opportunity to track these amazing birds in the wild. Here’s an abridged description of a tracking day, one of the essential management responsibilities of California condor recovery partners:

A day of tracking usually starts at 9 a.m. or later, when condors are up and moving. Thermal updrafts, which occur when the ground is warmed by the sun and the surrounding air rises, are a boon to a foraging condor. So condor watching doesn’t require the pre-dawn motivation that other bird watchers must muster. Once at the office, we look at our records for the previous day’s condor activity and set our game plan for the day based on specific individuals we are looking for, or where a wild carcass may have been spotted.

As we drive or hike through condor territory we stop often to “take signals.” We receive the signals emitted by radio-transmitters on the birds wings or tail feathers, using a directional antenna and handheld receiver (as pictured). Since each condor has its own unique frequencies, we can tell who we’re hearing, and in what direction they are from our location. Additionally, by listening closely to the intensity of the signal we can make some assumptions about distance from the observer, and whether the bird is perched or flying. Over the course of the day we may get multiple signals from the same bird that may indicate longer range movements within their range (between canyons or even between release sites). Over the course of a tracking day we will also make visual observations of the condors we come across. These observations may just be a flyby, but when we’re lucky we might get to see the birds feed, or display mating behavior. All of this information is recorded in order to document the relative health of the bird (e.g. no symptoms of lead poisoning), monitor breeding efforts, and provide insight into location of the bird if they do go missing.

A tracking day usually ends at about 4 when condors are starting to seek out their roost for the night. When we make it back to the office we input this data and eventually incorporate it with GPS data downloaded from satellites. Hopefully, we contacted all the birds we were looking for! If not, we will increase our efforts to contact missing birds the following day.

tracking photo

Condor biologist Erin Brannon tracks condors in the mountains of Big Sur, CA.

recording data

Me taking signals from basecamp within Ventana Wildlife Society Sanctuary in Big Sur, CA.

group tracking

Volunteers and visitors taking signals and getting visuals of condors along the Highway 1 in Big Sur, CA.


Meet the Science Team: Carolyn Kurle

I was brought onto the condor project by my collaborator and friend Dr. Myra Finkelstein to help decipher potential variations in California condor diets among the flocks in central and southern California. Up until then, I had only seen live California condors at the Santa Barbara Zoo and stuffed condors in a diorama at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum. When the opportunity arose for me to join the US Fish and Wildlife Service for their summer condor round up and bird examination in summer 2011, I jumped at the chance.

My son Jeremiah was four years old at the time and he and my husband Christian had already accompanied me on several field excursions related to my other projects, so I invited them along for three days at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. We drove to their field site and met with the scientists who would be rounding up the birds for health monitoring, testing for lead poisoning, and blood sampling and drove to the condor pen. It was over 100 degrees, so very hot and somewhat desolate, but beautiful.

My job was minimal – watch the USFWS personnel catch the condors from the capture pen, label the blood collection vials and hand them to the scientists drawing blood, and keep my blood samples cold in a small cooler I had brought along for sample transport. I would spin the blood in a centrifuge later, back at our hotel, to separate the red blood cells from the plasma portion of the blood. I would later prepare these samples for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis in my lab at the University of California San Diego. I then combined these data with isotope data from blood samples previously collected from these southern California condors and from birds in the central California flock to better understand potential dietary differences between the flocks and how these diet differences affect the health and well-being of the condors.

The most amazing things about being up close to California condors were their incredible size and their overwhelmingly ugly-but-beautiful faces. It’s one thing to know that condors are the largest terrestrial bird in North America, with wingspans that range to three meters, but it’s another thing to actually see these birds up close and truly understand what such a large size really means. And, up close, their faces are so incredibly fierce and intimidating, that one can clearly see they share a common ancestor with dinosaurs. These birds look dangerous, but they were very mellow to handle and the USFWS personnel did an excellent job processing each bird. I have worked with many animals species in my work as a food web ecologist, but the condors are definitely one of my favorites. Especially because I got to share the experience with my young son.

Kurle blog

Dr. Carolyn Kurle and her then 4 year old son Jeremiah getting their first glimpse of free-flying California condors at the USFWS capturing pen in summer 2011 at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Southern California.

Kurle blog 2

The incredibly large wingspan of a California condor.

kurle blog 3

Dr. Kurle and her son organizing blood samples and preparing tubes for blood collection.

Kurle blog 4

The beautifully “ugly” face of the California condor.

Update on lead poisoned condors 463 and 481

Update from The Condor Keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo Condor Lead Treatment Center on the condition of 463 and 481, who are being treated for extremely high lead levels. Condors 463 and 481 have both worn black underline tags but now wear white tags (white63 and white81). This update highlights the heroic and tireless efforts of the Condor Keepers for the survival of the condors.

California Condors , male 463 (left) and female 481 are still in the LA Zoo condor lead treatment center after a big meal and a nice bath. Both experienced unbelievable blood lead levels 463’s blood lead level was 450 micrograms per deciliter(4.5 ppm) when he arrived at the zoo on May 29, 2014. This is probably a lethal level in any other bird. He had numerous metal densities in his crop and stomach which had to be surgically removed with two different incisions. One in the crop and one in the abdomen/ventriculus. 463 has been recovering for almost 7 WEEKS here at the zoo. He became very sick from lead toxicity and lost body weight to the tune of 4 pounds(down to about 12 pounds of body weight). He has since gained about 2 pounds in the last 2 weeks but is on lots of meds to ward off infection to his debilitated immune and digestive system. Us keepers have to manually push food from his crop into his stomach because he cant do it himself. He has been spending his nights in doors because of his inability to thermo regulate. Tonight with be his first night outside in a couple of weeks.Female 481 came in insimilar condition on June 26, 2014 with several metal densities in the crop and abdomen. She seemed to be in better shape than 463 so surgery was postponed to see if we could get the metal out naturally. She is in similar shape to 463 but she came in with blood lead level of 560 micrograms per deciliter (5.6 ppm). Many birds with levels like this never live to tell the tale. Wish these two amazingly strong willed birds (and their keepers) luck in the next few weeks for a full recovery. Chandra David, Jenny Schmidt, Debbie Ciani. Michael Clark


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!


Progress Report



Amazing volunteers

Condor Watch has a growing group of thousands of enthusiastic, hard-working volunteers. These volunteers have already produced over 150,000 classifications of images. We have volunteers from every ice-free continent, hailing from over 130 countries!

We have two fabulous and incredibly energetic moderators: Wreness and ElisabethB. Many thanks to both for their hard work monitoring posts and keeping the site fun and productive while both doing mind-blowing numbers of classifications!!


Initial observations

We are pleasantly surprised at the proportion of images that have multiple readable tags, which are yielding good data on social structure and the amount of time different types of individuals use feeding stations.

We expected to see other species besides condors, but we have been amazed by the frequency of other scavengers and the breadth of species seen – including large groups of coyotes, as well as mountain lions, bears, golden eagles, and wild pigs. We will be quantifying carcass use by scavengers so please do hashtag these ‘other’ species you see.



The first few months have not been without some website problems and annoyances, as our volunteers have helped us discover! We will be deploying a series of site updates today that should address many of these issues. Here’s a rundown of the fixes/upgrades:

  • Ravens! We have heard the cries of despairs. We do want to know how many ravens are present at carcasses but we confess, we just didn’t realize how tedious it would be to mark large unkindnesses of ravens (how fitting a term for a group of animals) in the same manner that condors are marked. We are happy to announce that marking distance to carcass for ravens is NEVERMORE!
  • Carcass/scale marking: We have now removed the marking of scales, and only ask that you mark carcasses. We have included a section in the field guide on the best way to do this.
  • Back button: Many have reported that it is too easy to mistakenly press “all animals marked”. To try and stop this from happening we have relocated this button so that it appears under the image being classified.
  • Mis-identifications and unknown birds. We have struggled to get the code linking tag information to bird ID working seamlessly, and the site still occasionally reports the wrong bio, or no bio at all. We have added some extra tools behind the scenes to help us troubleshoot this, and we will eventually conquer this problem. However, we want to be very clear for anyone worried about how this affects our science–it doesn’t! We have a complete record of all tag data that each volunteer enters and the science team is assigning bios and assessing consensus using a separate process.


Community connections

We’ve been posting interesting Condor Watch images and general news about condors to Facebook and Twitter several times a week. We’ve heard feedback that there are still people who are not on Facebook, and so to reach the entire community, we’ll also be posting these to this blog as Condor News and Project Updates.

As a reminder, there are many places to connect with Condor Watch and our community: Condor Watch Talk (ie, the Discuss pages), this blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

Finally, there are many places to find more help:

The Field Guide: we’ve added clarifying instructions on how to enter wing tag information, how to enter other species, and how to distinguish turkey vultures from condors

Condor Watch Blog FAQ and Gallery of Wing Tags pages

Thanks to our volunteers the world over for their hard work and enthusiasm, which is making our site a success and is making a difference for California Condors! Please keep helping us at

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:


Condor news of the week (5/21/14)

Check out this video from a newly installed nestcam in Southern California posted by USFWS. It features 111 (Red11) and her chick. The view of the chick at the end is priceless!

Here’s a marvelous video clip from the film The Condor’s Shadow that demonstrates how much care goes into growing this population through egg management. Spoiler: the eggshell trick worked and the chick, 599, is now part of the wild flock in Southern California. Look for her — she’s wearing tag Black99.  Foster mom and dad are 79 (Orange79) and 247 (Yellow47).

Condors of the Columbia exhibit opens at the Portland Zoo on May 24.

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.