Last month, in a cave barren of any nesting materials, six air miles north of Fillmore, another endangered California condor was born. The caves in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary section of the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex are critical condor nesting sites.
With a total wild and captive condor population hovering at around 300 birds, this event may seem as commonplace or as predictable as “just another space mission.” After all, this endangered species was down to 22 survivors in 1982. Not so!
If not for the efforts of many government agencies, zoos, nonprofit organizations and volunteers, the California condor would be as dead as the dodo and would have joined the ranks of the passenger pigeon and the great auk, becoming just another tragic entry in Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten’s book A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals.
Like our space program, with its many dangers from the process of launching, to the mission itself and in re-entry, the California condor also goes through stages of threat to its life. The first peril is hatching. It can take days for a chick to hatch and some chicks do die in the process.
The second challenge is for the condor chick to survive long enough to be able to fledge or take flight at roughly 6 months of age. Opportunistic predators take their toll and include other birds, coyotes, bobcats, bears and mountain lions. The first two challenges are all part and parcel of nature’s design.
Unfortunately, the most menacing threat to the chicks’ life is micro-trash caused by humans. If you can pick up a small piece of trash, roughly the size of a quarter and smaller, with a pair of needle-nosed pliers, then it is micro-trash.
All condors are curious by nature. Some adult condors are fascinated by small bits of trash, bringing them back to the cave and feeding it, with dire consequences, to their own chicks. The types of items that do not pass through the chicks are highly variable, from glass fragments, wire connectors, pull tabs, metal and plastic bottle caps, to anything that strikes their fancy that day. One chick recovered from surgery to remove more than 30 white bottle caps from its stomach.
Condor chicks do not develop the necessary regurgitating reflex that would rid their bodies of trash from the time of birth to around 3 to 5 months of age. The trash may cause puncturing of organs or, more commonly, the juvenile becomes weak or dies from lack of nutrition.
More bad news for the condors. Juvenile birds face the same prospect adults do: Poisoning from the consumption of dead wildlife and gut piles laden with lead. X-ray studies of lead slugs in deer carcasses reveal up to as many as 300 bits of dispersed lead dust fragments along the bullet’s path. A small bit of lead dissolves faster in the powerful digestive track of the bird than a single piece of lead. A single bullet is also deadly.
All too frequently, condors demonstrating lead poisoning behavior and symptoms must be trapped by the California condor recovery program and brought to zoos for a chelating treatment. A chelate chemically removes or leaches, in this case, the lead from the blood of the birds.
Acute lead poisoning damages the involuntary muscular contractions that makes food move from the condor’s pouch, called a crop, to its stomach and then be assimilated in the digestive tract. In many cases food usually doesn’t reach the stomach and the bird starves to death.
How can we help? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Condor Recovery program needs volunteers to conduct condor nest watching and behavior monitoring, to help staff information booths at events, and to sponsor micro-trash cleanup projects.
The birth of the new chick coincided with a second meeting of volunteers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife California Condor Recovery Program staff who are exploring the prospects of creating a new nonprofit organization, tentatively called Friends of the California Condor.
We have just hatched and need board members, volunteers to help run activities and financial support through memberships, fund raisers and grants. For meeting information and training, call the California Condor Recovery Program office at 805.644.5185.
Mike Havstad, a member of Friends of the California Condor, is president of the Ojai chapter of Los Padres Forest Association.