Lessons learned from the California Condor

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors.  Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about jobs, and then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventure here!

This week as interns we learned about the California condor, and the role of conservation and genetics in preserving the species. The condor would have gone extinct without human intervention. At first, there was debate that the condors should have been allowed to slip into extinction, it was a natural process and humans should not get involved. The other side of the debate was that humans were directly causing the species’ decline.

The condor was listed as endangered in 1967.  There was continued decline until 1987 when it was discovered that there was less than two dozen birds left in the wild. The condors were on the verge of complete extinction, despite classification as endangered. The decision was made to bring the birds into protective captivity. Currently the condor’s status by the ICUN (Red List) is still critically endangered but the population is increasing. We now have over 400 birds in existence and half of them live in the wild.

The California condor is the largest bird found in North America.  It once lived from the tip of Baja California to British Columbia along the west coast.  The condor’s habitat is in costal, mountain areas. Today, in the wild, the condors live in three released areas: California, Arizona, and Baja California. These birds can travel great distances due to their massive wingspan and have been tracked traveling hundreds of miles in a single day. Condors are scavengers and they only eat flesh from dead animals. They also have a very slow reproductive rate.  It will take five to seven years for a condor to reach sexual maturity, and in the wild, a female condor only lays one egg every two years.

There are many factors that have contributed to this species’ decline in numbers. They include: condors eating poisoned carcasses that contain lead from bullets, the birds flying into power lines and suffering fatal injuries, habitat destruction, poaching (they were at one time shot for food), slow reproductive rate in the wild, consumption of “microtrash” (which are small pieces of trash that have been left on the ground) and a lethal genetic mutation.

Much has been done to overcome these obstacles for the condors.  Laws have been passed to eliminate lead in bullets in areas of California and severe fines have been placed on people who shoot the birds. The condors have been taught, prior to release, to avoid power lines and not to eat micro trash. In the San Diego Zoo’s captive breeding program,  the reproductive rate per year has been increased to as many as three eggs. Additional work is being done to look at the condor’s genetics.

Learning about the struggle to save the condors has taught me more about the work we need to do to clean up our environment and more on how to conserve our species. We need to do more in cleaning up our garbage, regulating the use of lead bullets in more states, and use genetics to understand the species we are trying to save.  The lessons learned from saving the condor will help us save more species.

Colton, Wildlife Conservancy Corner
Fall 2012, week two