Lead Poisoning Continues to Hinder California Condor Population Recovery, and Harm Other Bird Species

Lead Poisoning Continues to Hinder California Condor Population Recovery, and Harm Other Bird Species

Brianna Elliott
Published: 04/19/2013

A California condor in flight. Photo by USFWS Pacific Southwest RegionCC BY 2.0

Since December, seven California condors, the largest and most endangered land bird in North America, have died around the Grand Canyon, the Center for Biological Diversity reports. The culprit in three of the cases—and suspected in the other four deaths—is poisoning from ingesting lead ammunition. Condors are scavengers that feed on carcasses and gut piles of elk, deer, and other animals; when those creatures have been shot by hunters who use lead ammunition, the birds ingest metal fragments with their meal.

Any loss of a condor is significant because so few of these remarkable birds   they can weigh up to 25 pounds, have a wingspan of 9.5 feet, and soar at 50 miles per hour   exist today. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s March 2013 report, there are only 404 condors; of those, 173 are in captivity, while the remainder fly free in Arizona, Utah, California, and Baja, Mexico. The numbers are so low that the species is critically endangered, but it’s made a significant comeback since 1987, when all nine remaining birds were captured for captive breeding. From those few birds the species has slowly rebounded and is carefully monitored and researched today. 

The primary threat to this iconic species’ recovery is lead poisoning. The Peregrine Fund, which leads condor conservation in Arizona, has taken blood samples of 61 of the condors in Arizona since the year 2000. Of those, 52 birds had lead in their systems, and 20 of them had potentially harmful levels of the heavy metal. Lead causes an agonizing death in condors, slowly shutting down their organs, Jennifer Fearing, the director of California’s Humane Society, recently reported in a news article. Chelation therapy removes the lead from condors’ systems, but it requires capturing the birds. The Fund has treated 34 condors in Arizona, nearly half of Arizona and Utah’s wild population of 77 birds. In California’s Pinnacles National Park, where 33 condors currently live, by the time the vultures reach the breeding age of seven years old, nearly all have received emergency, life-saving chelation treatment at least once. 

Conservationists and scientists are pushing for lead-ammunition bans to remove the threat. “The continuous deaths of Grand Canyon condors from lead poisoning is preventable if we finally treat toxic lead ammunition as we did lead paint and leaded gasoline,” says Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity in a press release.

Unlike the federal ban in 1991 on lead-shot hunting of waterfowl, no national ban exists for upland bird hunting. California and Arizona, the states with the most condor numbers, are making progress on reducing lead ammunition.

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