The California condor conundrum
THE PLIGHT OF THE California condor will be discussed at the Valley of the Moon Nature Lecture series on Wednesday, Nov. 28.
Photo courtesy of Chris Parish/The Peregrine Fund
In the world of species conservation, there are few stories as awe-inspiring as that of the California condor. While the species was almost extinct in 1982, when only 22 birds remained in the wild, it has made a miraculous comeback, largely thanks to the intervention of concerned wildlife organizations.
“It’s quite a story. I think that’s what intrigued me,” said John Moir, a decorated science writer who authored “Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird from Extinction.” The book was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize from Stanford University in 2008 and was named one of the five best pieces of science journalism by the National Association of Science Writers in 2007.
Moir will be speaking in Sonoma as part of the Valley of the Moon Nature Lecture Series sponsored by Sonoma Birding and the Sonoma County Regional Parks. The lecture, entitled “The Mighty California Condor,” takes place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28, at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building, 126 First St. W.
“To have this magnificent bird so endangered in our midst, takes my breath away. In our lecture series we strive to get the best talent on the subject, and John is a leading voice for the California condor,” said Tom Rusert, founder of the lecture series and Sonoma Birding. “We have been offering these unique nature lectures for seven years now in hopes that people in Sonoma Valley will come away from the experience significantly enriched.”
Moir is a longtime journalist and avid birder, who’s based much of his writing career on highlighting environmental and wildlife issues. But it was a personal captivation with the considerable condor that sent him on the path of writing his first book on species conservation.
“It still gives me the shivers to see them. Especially when they fly right over head, it’s as big as a small airplane,” Moir said of the condor, whose wings can span 8- to 10-feet – the largest of any North American bird. “It just has this primal feeling.”
Condors have lived in California for centuries; 10,000-year-old fossilized remains have been found scattered across Oregon and California. The massive bird is even depicted in cave paintings as a creature that played a prominent ceremonial role in many tribal cultures.
But by the 1970s, its numbers had dwindled to just a few dozen condors known to exist in the wild. It wasn’t until 1984 when scientists discovered what was causing the decline in population. That was the year a dead condor was found, seemingly with no injuries, until tests uncovered toxic levels of lead. It was just the link scientists had searched for.
Condors are carrion eaters, meaning they scavenge off the carcasses of other animals. Some of those animals are killed and left by hunters, who in the 1970s and ’80s, mostly used cost-effective lead ammunition.
“When a lead bullet hits a game animal, it shatters. Fragments scatter fairly widely through the animals,” Moir said, explaining that even a small sliver can sicken the condor. “The way they die is that the lead shuts down the intestines … It’s a long process, it can take days (for the bird to die).”
Moir has written extensively about what he calls the “lead issue,” but mostly for science journals and magazines. When he set out to write a book, he needed to humanize the issue and make it relatable to the average reader.
For him, that story began with Jan Hamber, a biologist who had worked with California condors since 1976. Hamber was involved in the captive breeding program launched as a joint effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society in the 1980s. In attempts to increase the number of condors in California, scientists began capturing the wild birds to protect the species and encourage breeding in captivity to help the population bounce back. By 1987, there was only one male known to still fly free in California, he was called AC-9 (adult condor 9).
“She (Hamber) had watched this bird since birth. She had to make this decision, do you bring in this thing that’s the last of its species?” Moir said, explaining that Hamber ultimately decided it would be better for the species – and for the protection of AC-9 – to bring the bird into the captive breeding program.
“She was the one who captured the last wild condor,” Moir marveled. “It was kept in captivity for many years … and then eventually, was released. I am happy to report that AC-9 is still flying around today.”
The program continues to flourish today, and has helped increase the condor’s numbers to more than 400 in California, about half of which live in the captive breeding program.
“If we can save the condor, that just opens the door to saving so many other species,” Moir said.
This is just one of the area’s Moir will explore in his lecture on Wednesday. He will also give an update on the use of lead ammunition and its potential impact on other species. In his 2008 article in Smithsonian magazine, Moir noted a study conducted by North Dakota physician Dr. William Cornatzer, which indicated the same lead fragments that killed condors could often be detected in game meat found in hunters’ freezers.
“The North Dakota Department of Health ran additional scans that showed the metal fragments tested strongly for lead. Concerned about the potential risks for humans, North Dakota officials recommended the destruction of tons of venison still in storage at food pantries,” Moir wrote. “Spurred by the North Dakota findings, health departments in several other states ran similar tests and also found tainted meat. In the largest survey of donated venison, Minnesota officials X-rayed 1,239 packages and found 22 percent to be contaminated with lead.”
In addition to Moir, Rusert said the California Condor Rehabilitation team from the Oakland Zoo would be on hand at the lecture. Admission to the lecture is $5 at the door.
For more information, visit sonomabirding.com.