San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 2013
Big Sur -- The California condor fluttered up to a perch directly in front of the scientists, turned his fleshy pink head toward the reflective window inside its pen and glared with bloodshot eyes into the observation hut.
The big black vulture, known to researchers as Phoenix because he survived a fire as a fledgling, is the heart and soul of California's ban on lead hunting ammunition, according to conservationists.
The concern among condor researchers is that the law banning hunters from using lead ammunition - signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this month - doesn't go into effect until July 2019.
The number of condor deaths from lead poisoning this year is "unprecedented," said Joe Burnett, the Big Sur condor project coordinator for the Ventana Wildlife Society, which has been leading the effort in Central California to bring back the majestic birds from near extinction.
Condors began to die off in the 19th century, many of them poisoned with the lead shot that was left by hunters in the entrails and carcasses that the birds scavenged. Condors, with splayed, finger-like wing tips and wingspans of up to 10 feet, were listed as a federally endangered species in 1967, and by 1987 there were so few left in the wild that measures had to be taken to save them.
Last 27 condors
The last 27 California condors left in the wild were captured and placed in a breeding program. The Big Sur flock is the result of that program. There are now about 60 birds and seven breeding pairs in the two flocks at Pinnacles National Park and Big Sur, all of them with VHF transmitters and about a third equipped with GPS tracking devices.
The goal is to eventually have 150 free-flying birds and 15 breeding pairs in California. The problem is that the birds cannot reproduce fast enough to make up for the numbers that are dying from lead poisoning, Burnett said.
Phoenix was one of four condors captured this past week by Ventana Wildlife Society biologists. The birds are held in a net-covered flight pen deep in the Big Sur backcountry where they are tested for lead poisoning. The sickest ones - those with lead levels high enough to require emergency treatment - have historically been taken to the Los Angeles Zoo, an arduous eight-hour drive from the Big Sur camp.
Easier trip to vet
The trip, however, just got a lot easier. The Oakland Zoo, which joined the California Condor Recovery Program in 2012, was given permission last week by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin treating sick birds. The zoo expects an official permit within the next few months to become the first condor treatment and rehabilitation center in the Bay Area.
The Oakland Zoo's 900-square-foot treatment center, built over the past year, will cut by two-thirds the time it now takes to transport sick birds to a veterinary facility.
The gangly birds can use all the help they can get. An average of 2 out of every 3 condors tested in the Big Sur camp have had lead levels high enough to require emergency treatment, Burnett said. That includes one bird, No. 242, which had the highest level ever recorded in a member of the flock, enough to put a human into intensive care. Another condor, which eventually died, was found with a lead slug from a .22 in its digestive tract.
Three members of the Big Sur flock are currently missing, which is usually the indication of a poisoning death. Burnett said most people don't understand that condor stomachs evolved over millennium to be highly acidic, allowing the creatures to digest bacteria and other toxins from rotten meat. Their superb digestive capabilities mean they also absorb higher concentrations of lead when they consume bullet fragments left in squirrels, rabbits and other varmints killed by farmers or in gut piles left by hunters.
A new condor cam
The Oakland Zoo teamed up with the Ventana Wildlife Society to put up a live- streaming webcam in the condor sanctuary in the Big Sur backcountry. The camera will allow biologists and the public to view the birds. It is accessible at www.oaklandzoo.org.
© 2013 Hearst Communications, Inc.
This article originally appeared here.
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