Thursday, June 30, 2016

Condor Population Increasing

One of the most controversial rescue stories in recent decades is the California condor (Gymnogypus californianus) recovery program undertaken by the federal  government.   The intense management of North America's largest land bird on the brink of extinction in the wild brought howls of derision from conservatives who think any money spent helping wildlife survive man's radical alteration of the planet is a waste. Questions were asked about the efficacy of man's intervention in their pending extinction, but also about the ethics of doing so given the birds notoriously slow reproductive rate.  Female condors lay one egg every other year. A captive breeding program was set up when only 22 wild condors remained. Chicks are hand reared by humans wearing condor sock puppets on their hands to prevent imprinting on humans.[photo, below]  Juveniles are then carefully reintroduced into the wild.  Each bird is tagged with prominent number tags on their wings.  They are fed carcasses to prevent them from ingesting all sorts of human detritus.  Condors are especially found of sparkly metal objects like bottle caps.  Occasionally birds need to recaptured and chelated to clean out their digestive tracts.   So although the birds live in the wild, they are not yet completely independent of their caretakers.  The program has been very expensive.  In 2007 the US Fish & Wildlife reported the program cost about $2 million a year.

All of this tender care lavished on the California condor after two and half decades is paying off in conservation terms.  The US Fish & Wildlife Service reports that condor numbers in the wild have increased to 270.  Biologists report the birds are expanding their range and have begun foraging for their own food.  Reintroduction has been difficult.  The birds are too habituated for their own good, and living near human civilization is not healthy.  Many have suffered lead poisoning from eating carrion tainted with lead ammunition.  The latest report published in the journal Ecohealth notes that this dependence may be changing for the better, although wilder behaviors are associated with lower survival rates.  Condors once flew all over North America, now they have a range confined to the southwestern United States where they have been reintroduced.

Reintroduced condors are beginning to resist recapture, making it more difficult for researchers to record accurate health assessments. Fewer condors are dying from electrocution due to collision with high power wires.  The US Fish & Wildlife says avoidance training is working and that adult condors are transmitting this information to their offspring.  There has not been a death from power pole collision since 2004.  But lead poisoning remains a intractable problem for the carrion eaters who normally have life spans of sixty years. California is phasing out lead ammunition, but the ban will not be in full effect until 2019. Lead levels in the hundred birds monitored recently are down.  The study concludes the increase in population is due to better management techniques.