Thom Lord— 14 November 2006 — in California Condor Restoration ShareGreetings, Notes from the Field readers! The steady march of seasons rolled on last month, bringing snowfall in the higher elevations and the first signs of morning frost in the deserts below. More notably for condor project biologists, October also marked the beginning of hunting seasons in both Utah and Arizona. This is of particular concern to us, because we inevitably see an increase in lead exposure in the condor population at this time of year.
As many of you know, lead bullets can fragment into hundreds of pieces upon impact, which, when left in the field in gutpiles or carcass remains, have the potential to be found and consumed by foraging condors and other scavengers. When ingested, these lead fragments can cause severe health problems in condors, even leading to death; lead poisoning is currently the primary cause of mortality in the Arizona population. Therefore, we are especially vigilant at this time of year, doing everything possible to document what the birds are feeding upon and what risk might be posed in each case. If a condor is found to have fed on a lead-contaminated carcass, we attempt to trap the bird, test its blood lead levels, and treat it when necessary. This process has saved the lives of a number of condors, but it is labor intensive, quite traumatic for the birds involved, and not always successful.
Fortunately, good alternatives to lead ammunition exist, making this potentially beneficial food source safer for condors to eat. Hunters have shown a great willingness to help with the issue, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have made it easy for them to do so by providing free non-lead ammunition to all big-game hunters drawing a tag in the condors’ primary foraging range. Surveyed hunters were overwhelmingly satisfied with the performance of the provided ammunition last year, and we hope that that will translate into an even greater percentage of hunters using non-lead ammunition this year. In speaking with hunters last month, project biologists found that an encouraging number were aware of the issue and were using non-lead ammunition. Hopefully this initially heartening news will translate into reduced lead exposure for the condors throughout the hunting season.
Those of you that have been following the saga of Condor 122, a bird that had been in captivity for a number of months, will be pleased to learn that we were finally able to release him last month! Condor 122, a breeding male, was captured in an obviously compromised state last March, ending a nesting attempt with his mate, Condor 119. He was found to be suffering from the effects of severe lead poisoning, and was transferred to the Phoenix Zoo, where he underwent treatment. He eventually returned to Vermilion Cliffs to complete his recovery, and seemed be doing well. When biologist Eddie Feltes and I released him on 19 October, he was as strong and aggressive as any condor I’ve ever seen. Condor 122 stayed at the release site for about three days, then left to resume the same patterns of movement that he had shown before his seven months of captivity. The breeding season is very close, and we’re all waiting to see how Condor 119 reacts to the reappearance of her long-lost mate. No matter what happens, though, it is satisfying just to have Condor 122 alive and flying free again.
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