In the early 1980’s, the California condor population dwindled to fewer than two dozen worldwide. The greatest known killer of these highly endangered birds is lead poisoning caused by ingesting small amounts of lead from decaying animals killed by lead bullets. New efforts are now underway to, once again, try to save the condor. Our environmental reporting partner Earthfix as the story.
Saving California condors
In the early 1980s, the California condor population dwindled to fewer than two dozen worldwide.
The greatest-known killer of these highly endangered birds is lead poisoning caused by ingesting small amounts of lead from decaying animals killed by lead bullets.
New efforts are now underway to once again try to save the condor.
Our environmental reporting partner EarthFix has the story.
Cradled under a soft, simple towel, Kelli Walker holds one of the rarest animals anywhere.
In fact, one of the last of its kind on the planet.
Come over and grab his legs.
Please. Thank you.
With luck and a lot of hard work, it could grow up to have a 10-foot wingspan...
She's just getting her primaries in.
...and join the largest land birds in North America -- the California condor.
The first time we actually get our hands on those chicks is at 30 to 45 days old, when they have to get their West Nile virus shots, some blood drawn.
We put it in DNA sexing so we know if it's a male or a female.
If everything goes right, that frightened gray face will grow up bright and multicolor.
But still just as bald.
It's colorful, and it changes colors, and you can read so much about their attitude.
They are pretty.
They're much prettier than turkey vultures.
These magnificent scavengers used to fly and live along the Columbia River not that long ago.
We know this from Lewis and Clark's journals -- the sketch and descriptions they made of the 'buzzards of the Columbia.'
Now the only condors in Oregon reside inside large cages.
The Oregon Zoo has built a facility in rural Clackamas County for one purpose -- to breed condors in captivity.
Its goal is not to raise them for zoos.
Condors here are destined to be released into the wild, so they want as little human contact with them as possible.
Kelli Walker is the senior condor keeper.
It's very unpleasant for them, which it should be.
But we like to see that reaction.
You want any wild animal to fear people.
Close-up exams are rare.
Most of the times, keepers remain invisible, hiding behind one-way glass, peeking through peepholes, or relying on remote-control cameras to see how the condors are doing.
It's a gang.
It is a gang.
The Oregon Zoo is one of four facilities in the national effort to breed condors to bring them back from the edge of extinction.
Truly the very brink.
In the late '80s, their population had plunged to just 22 birds left in the entire world.
In a last-ditch effort, federal biologists captured every last one of them in the Southwest to keep the species alive.
Captive breeding is bringing them back.
Yeah, you started out with 22, and now you're almost at 400.
Still a very limited population, but that's pretty phenomenal in itself.
To send them off, and to know that they're free flying, that's why we do this program.
That's my favorite part about it.
This project would be a success if it was a self-sustaining population, but it's not, because they're being poisoned.
Despite so many successful released, condors continue to die prematurely.
They're eating lead.
That is the primary and almost only problem in this program, is the lead.
1/4 of the birds raised at the Oregon Zoo and then released have perished, most of them from acute lead poisoning.
It only takes a tiny, tiny bit of lead to affect these birds.
It's the biggest issue The highest mortality is from lead ammunition in condors, by far.
The National Rifle Association disputes that bullets from hunting game can be linked to the condor deaths.
But a study released in 2012 from the University of California found that lead swallowed by condors had to come from bullets based on identical matches detectable at the molecular level.
For the blood from this bird, that ratio of those four isotopes look exactly like the ratio in this fragment.
The vast majority of cases, all of the birds that are lead poisoned, their lead fingerprint looks exactly like the lead fingerprint from lead-based ammunition.
It's not that the condors are being shot.
It's what they eat -- the gut piles that hunters leave behind after killing and cleaning their game.
For scavengers, it's the perfect meal.
Hunters are actually great for condors.
Hunters are fantastic.
It provides a food source.
So if it wasn't tainted with lead, it'd be fantastic.
Deaths from lead poisoning have become such a problem that conservation teams in California put out food for the wild condors now flying free to ensure they get clean meat.
But it's not enough.
They can fly over 150 miles in a day and still feed on lead-tainted animals.
Then biologists have to lure the condors back in with food and re-capture the birds.
They take them to the Los Angeles Zoo, where they get nearly a week of treatments for lead poisoning.
Have we pulled fragments from birds that ended up being lead ammunition?
Yeah, plenty of them.
Have birds regurgitated fragments that, after they were analyzed, turned out to be ammunition?
Yeah, we have all of those things.
No way would we have imagined that we'd be taking care of 15 birds at a time that are wild, that are just coming in because of lead toxicity.
Mike Clark at the L.A. Zoo told the filmmaker of 'Shadow of the Condor' that they cleanse their blood of the toxins, but they never manage to get the lead levels to completely disappear.
We can't keep doing this.
There's no end in sight until there's no lead.
I don't think most people understand that.
You know, that it's that critical.
[ Gunshots ]
How many times should your bullet kill, you know?
It should kill once.
It should kill the animal you're trying to kill, and never kill anything beyond that.
And that's kind of what we're going for here.
The Yurok Tribe of Northern California has revered the condor for centuries.
It would like hunters to change from lead to non-lead ammunition.
So it brought rifles, free ammo, and a shooting demonstration to Grants Pass to encourage hunters to switch to non-lead bullets voluntarily.
...copper, or whatever are non-lead...
A lot of them come out thinking that we're a bunch of bunny-huggers.
Loaded and ready.
And when they realize that all of us are hunters, as well... [ Gunshot ] ...and that there is something behind this, and they talk to us about hunting, and they talk to us about firearms and they get that, then they start opening up a little bit more.
I can't afford $30 or $40 for a box, so...
Copper bullets often cost 40% to 50% more than lead ones.
So the tribe offered a free trade out -- lead for non-lead.
So there you are.
Barnes 30-06 and Barnes 223.
Hey, thank you very much.
Just was a great deal to come and make an exchange.
But what these hunters really wanted to demonstrate was what happens when bullets hit their target.
[ Gunshot ] A barrel full of water jugs stops the bullet and makes it easy to see what's left behind.
There's the bullet.
I'm not seeing any fragments yet.
The copper bullet comes out in one piece...
Here's the main mass.
...the lead ammo in hundreds.
So, if you guys want to all take a look in there... When you pull everything out of there and you look in, and you see the entire bottom of the barrel strewn with tiny fragments of lead, just like a gray sand scattered across the bottom of the barrel.
I see a lot of lead.
A lot of fragments, yeah.
We pour it out and we filter it through coffee filter, and then you can take that and you can weigh it.
Tilt it a little more.
Okay, that's about everything right there.
Here's what's left of our lead bullet.
Shattered copper casing and just lead everywhere.
If that's not enough to convince the skeptics, they fire again... [ Gunshot ] ...into a slab of gelatin, which mimics the muscle tissue of big game.
The lead bullet explodes, leaving a long, visible trail of fragments.
Those fragments can spread out through the animal, away from the wound channel, and taint the carcass.
It can taint the meat that a hunter eats, and it can also taint the gut pile if the hunter shoots into the vitals.
Are you concerned about lead in the meat?
No. No, I spit it out whenever I find it, every once in a while.
[ Laughter ]
Well, it's interesting.
I think it's worth looking into.
I think it's gonna be the future, whether we're prepared or not.
You know, I just think it's environmentally a better idea to use non-lead.
There is a pretty powerful lobby pushing against change in the ammunition industry.
Copper is relatively new.
Most people don't know that much about it.
And in the hunting community, tradition is a big thing.
When hunting waterfowl, lead shot is already banned nationwide.
As for bullets, California has banned hunting game with lead ammunition in the region where condors are released.
The NRA condemns lead-bullet bans as anti-hunting.
In Oregon, hunters can shoot game with anything.
There are no restrictions, and the state has none planned.
The Oregon Zoo takes no position on the ammunition, knowing it's a political hot potato.
But zoo Curator of Birds Michael Illig says lead bullets are the prime reason why the condors raised in Oregon are never released here, in their historic native range.
It's not gonna be logical to release them until we have a handle on the lead.
It's a shame, yeah.
But we're hopeful that we'll have this project long enough that they will see them released here.
There is little doubt that condors would be extinct if an immense, collective national effort had not orchestrated their salvation.
More than 400 are free again.
But they still get so much help from humans it's hard to call them wild.
We know that the field crews are doing their darndest not to let anybody die of lead.
So... But we know they're going to.
We're just losing too many of them, or having to treat too many of them.
So if we could stop doing that, the program would be a success.
You just keep fighting the good fight.
What else are you gonna do?
You wish them luck, and let them go.