Opening Doors for 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 adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

abby_W1_picI have often heard about the outstanding conservation efforts of the San Diego Zoo, yet I had never quite understood all of the logistics and strategy behind the success. To the inexperienced mind, conservation might seem simple; try to help species by providing  protected habitat, breeding grounds, and other various necessities. However, I have come to find out that conservation is much more challenging and involved than what meets the eye.

The San Diego Zoo is famous for its thriving conservation efforts with the largest bird in North America, the California condor.  With its impressive nine and a half foot wingspan, the California condor originally ranged all the way from Canada to Baja California; however, in 1967 they were declared an endangered species, due to habitat loss and various other human-inflicted problems. By 1987, there were less than two dozen condors left on the planet. The Zoo and its partners decided to take matters into their own hands by initiating recovery efforts by taking in all the birds from the wild. Only two decades later, there are now more than four hundred California condors on Earth. By learning and observing more about this species, new methods of conservation developed like “triple clutching”- taking eggs after being laid, so the female would continue to breed and end up laying three eggs instead of one in a breeding period. Although these efforts are imperative to the California condor success, work in the lab and public education have been key factors as well.

At the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, the research arm of the zoo, scientists work in the lab, in addition to the field, to improve conservation efforts. Regarding the California condor, identifying genetic issues, such as chondrodystrophy, a type of lethal dwarfism found in these birds, and gender determination, have helped in recovering this critically endangered species. Also, these birds are scavengers, which means they feed on the remains of other animals, including game left behind by hunters. Necropsies of deceased birds have yielded findings of lead bullets in the digestive systems of the wild condors. Most people don’t realize that condors will ingest lead bullets used for hunting and thus die from lead poisoning. Luckily, thanks to this discovery, new laws in California prohibit using lead bullets when hunting in areas where condors are free flying; a great start to a long recovery process. Yet how do we get these new findings out to the public? How can we really make a difference in conservation on a bigger level than just an elite group working to help save this species?

Not only does the Institute for Conservation Research contribute to lab and field conservation work, but it also shares its research with the public. Students, teachers, and others can come into the lab and have a unique learning experience, thanks to Maggie Reinbold, founding member of the Institute’s Conservation Education Division. With her expertise, she teaches and spreads the word about conservation efforts, strategies, and findings to interested people like myself! Hands-on lab experiences really make you appreciate and better understand all of the hard work put into conservation. For instance, not having listened to Mrs. Reinbold, I would not have known about “microtrash,” small pieces of plastic and glass found in baby California condors’ stomachs. The parents released back into the wild are mistakenly, based off their instincts, feeding their offspring these pieces of trash, thinking they are bits of bone essential for calcium levels.

People do not realize how much of an impact they really have on the environment. Thanks to people like Maggie Reinbold and her colleagues, the public can become involved in conservation as well. It seems unimaginable to me that trash and litter can reach California condor habitat, since they do not live near cities or urban areas. This really shows us how much we need to take responsibility, care for, and conserve the environment. While a few people can spark a change, it takes many to make a difference.

Abby, Conservation Team
Week One, Winter Session 2013