Reporter’s notebook: Condor recovery is a long-term project

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This young female condor’s head has not yet turned orange. Photo by Katie Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle, 8-22-2012

BIG SUR, California — In 1987, there were just 27 California condors left in the world.  The last wild bird was taken into captivity — a highly controversial move to try to keep the species in existence.

Two years later my daughter was born.  Katie Ann Dunbar always had a fascination with dragons, and that seems to have translated into a scientific interest in birds.  Armed with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology, she helped with bobolinks in Vermont and falcons and other raptors in California.

Those experiences led her to Big Sur, where she is working to help condors make it on their own.

Despite all our human efforts, the birds are still extremely rare — due mostly to problems created for them by people.  Fragments of lead bullets are their biggest threat.  Another problem is plastic trash scraps and bottle caps.

There are currently about 400 condors in the world, half of them in captivity.  The captive breeding program is working, and condors have been reintroduced to the wild.  Some are raising chicks the old-fashioned way, on the edge of a rock cliff somewhere.

There are condors in California, Arizona and Mexico.

In July, my sweetheart, Jim Bowes, and I had the incredible privilege of getting a good look at these birds ourselves when we visited Katie.

One day we got to go with Katie to where she perches on a cliff opposite the nest, watching through a high-powered scope as the wild condor mother nuzzles its chick lovingly.  These birds are enormous.  The baby chick, covered with gray down, is 19 pounds.

Under ideal circumstances, condors can live to be 60 years old.  They keep their mates and are extremely social.  The wild flock has an easily seen hierarchy when eating.  The matriarchs and patriarchs are first.  Kids wait their turn.

These birds, when fully grown, have a wingspan of nine and a half feet.  Seeing one in flight, skimming through the fog overhead, is a breath-taking experience.  Native Americans revered a legendary thunderbird, which some believe was a condor or an even larger relative of it.  It’s easy to see why.  These dramatic birds make an impression.

Condors’ wings are mostly black with a white pattern on both the top and bottom.  They have a feathery ruff around their necks, and adults have orange bald heads.  They eat only carrion, and the bald heads come in handy for keeping clean while tearing the meat from something dead.

Katie’s employer is the Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS).  Founded in 1977, VWS is a nonprofit with a mission to restore wildlife and educate the youth of central California.  VWS relies heavily on interns and volunteers.  She is an intern and has just accepted a second six-month stint.

The VWS helped bring back bald eagles.  The group also worked to help songbirds and monarch butterflies and to restore habitat.  The small team does workshops and classes for youngsters, and older students can apply for an eco-experience — a one-day or overnight experience with the California condors.

Jim and I had our own personal eco-experience while visiting.  Katie took us up to the VWS base camp for the night.  The base camp is high on top of a mountain overlooking the ocean, in the middle of an 80-acre property — the condor sanctuary.

The land in this area of the country stops abruptly at the ocean’s edge.  It makes for some incredible views of the ocean from the cliffs with rocks and narrow beaches below.  Highway 1, which winds around the edges of the cliffs, is in itself a tourist destination.

The camp is 20 miles up a tiny, winding one-lane dirt road perched on the edge of the cliffs.  There were four locked gates to go through.

My daughter seems perfectly comfortable driving the F-150 up this lane with a frozen dead calf carcass in the back of the truck.  She is also fine in eight-lane traffic to Los Angeles, where injured birds are treated at the zoo.

The calf carcass, provided by a neighboring dairy farmer, is lead-free food for the condors.  This is part of what the VWS does — provide the birds with a source of food that won’t make them sick.  In order to keep the wild birds from associating food with humans, this is done under the cover of darkness while the condors roost nearby.  In the morning they can be watched, through the scope, while they have their meal.

The VWS has a flight pen where an injured bird is staying right now, and another one perches on the pen, offering some company?  Or Katie thinks maybe it is taunting its friend.

All the 70 birds in this wild flock have been captured at one time in their lives, in order to put tags on their wings and small tracking transmitters, so they can be identified from far away.  Part of Katie’s job is tracking the birds to make sure they are all moving around normally.  If one stops moving for too long, she and her colleagues will look for it to make sure it’s all right.

The birds still sometimes die from lead poisoning, which happens if they eat a fragment of a bullet that might be in a carcass or a gut pile that a hunter left behind.  Something I didn’t know:  A lead-based bullet loses 30 percent of its mass on impact with the animal.  Tiny fragments scatter through the meat, which is a hazard not only to the big birds but also to humans who eat meat shot with lead bullets.

As a precautionary measure, they trap each bird once or twice a year to test their blood for lead.  If high lead is found the bird is sent to the Los Angeles zoo for treatment.  Chelation treatment takes one to three weeks of daily injections.  Chelation is a chemical process similar to what is done with children who get lead poisoning.

Sometimes a bird requires surgery to get a lead fragment out of its guts.

One of the missions of the VWS is to get hunters to switch to copper or other non-lead bullets.  Although eating copper is not good for you either, copper doesn’t fragment the way lead does.  The VWS provides free boxes of copper bullets to hunters in the condors’ range, and reports that 93 percent of hunters surveyed said the copper bullets worked just as well.

In condor country, lead bullets are banned, but some hunters still use them out of habit.

Another hazard for the birds is trash.  Condors in the wild eat bits of seashells and feed them to their chicks, to aid digestion (probably for the same reason chickens peck the dirt) or possibly for the calcium.  A small piece of plastic, broken glass, or a bottle cap seems like a seashell, and they eat them and feed them to the chicks.  The chicks can’t digest this stuff.  Their stomachs fill up with it, and they can actually starve to death.  So the VWS checks the chicks every so often, taking them down from the nest to do blood tests and palpate their stomachs to feel for odd shapes.

If a condor chick is full of plastic and bottle caps, it goes off to the zoo for surgery.  It can’t go back to the wild until it’s grown up.  Then it has to learn how to be a wild bird all over again.  It will be matched with an older mentor bird.

Despite these issues, condors are definitely doing better than they were.  The goal of the recovery program is two flocks in the wild of 150 birds and 15 breeding pairs each.

According to Return of the Condor, The Race To Save Our Largest Bird From Extinction by John Moir, a 2004 forecast by researchers at Stanford University predicts that unless things change, about 10 percent of the 10,000 bird species on Earth will go extinct by the end of the century.  An additional 15 percent will be so drastically reduced they will “no longer be ecologically significant.”

What are the consequences of these drastic losses of biodiversity?  No one knows, but it won’t be good.

Katie Dunbar watches a condor mother take care of its 19-pound chick. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

During our visit with Katie, I read the condor book as quickly as if it was a suspenseful novel.  It’s well-written, telling the story of the people who have devoted so much time and energy to saving these birds, and the stories of the individual birds as well.  John Moir is an award-winning author and science writer who lives in Santa Cruz, California.  The book was published in 2006, so it is up to date.

Another place to get more information, if you are interested, is the VWS website: ventanaws.org.

You might see some photos of a young woman who grew up in West Glover and graduated from Lake Region Union High School on there.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at [email protected]

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