The Feathers Will Fly

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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 their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s Website!

libby_W1_picIt’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a California condor! Actually, there are no free flying condors in the San Diego area, so the large bird you see circling is probably just a turkey vulture according to Maggie Reinbold, Associate Director of Conservation Education at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Though there are wild condors in California, none of them live near our big city of San Diego.

The California condor is the largest bird in North America and used to from British Columbia down into Baja, California and east into Arizona. However, the population of the giant birds with a wingspan of nine and a half feet began to decline and in 1967 they were listed as an endangered species. The biggest reason for the California condor’s decline, though there are many, is lead poisoning. Condors are scavengers and often prey on dead animals left by hunters in the field. Bullets with lead in them are popular, and when a condor accidentally consumes a bullet they become very sick and can die from the poisoning if not helped immediately.

Sometimes children’s toys are recalled because it is discovered the paint on them is lead based. We immediately return these toys so that our children are not poisoned by the lead. Lead has the same effect on the condors and their numbers were quickly dropping because of rampant poisoning. There was a point in 1982 when the population became so depleted that there were only 22 individual condors left in the wild. That was when the San Diego Zoo knew it had to step in and help the birds before they went completely extinct.

The remaining California condors were rounded up and brought in to begin a captive breeding program to bring up their numbers. Scientists needed to test the DNA from each condor to ensure they did not breed two birds that were closely related and to get a count of how many males and females were in the remaining group. Unlike humans, birds are sexually monomorphic, meaning both sexes are physically the same. If the scientists hadn’t determined the sexes of the birds, two males or two females may have been paired up for breeding and many years could have been wasted waiting for the pair to lay an egg, an event that would have been physically impossible.

Imagine you are baking cookies and add salt instead of sugar. Salt and sugar are physically the same substance, and, unless your containers are labeled, the only way to tell them apart is to test them by tasting them. If you add sugar to your batter then you will get delicious cookies, but if you add salt in its place then you won’t have the desire outcome. To ensure that no time was wasted, scientists took samples from the birds and analyzed their DNA. They discovered that there were three prominent clans of birds, like three separate families, and it was decided that birds would only be bred across the clan lines to ensure the population would have a diverse genetic pool. Now, the breeding program was ready to begin in full swing.

Today, after many years of working to bring up the number of these magnificent birds, there are over 400 California condors, about half of which live in the wild. The wild population lives in California, down to Mexico and over to Arizona. Though their population and range might not be what it was in the past, this is certainly a giant leap in the efforts to conserve the California condor. While 400 may not seem like a large number of birds to come out over a 30 year long breeding program, it is quite a feat. California condors only lay one solitary egg every two years. Unlike chickens that can produce multiple eggs daily, condors will never lay a clutch of two or more eggs, only ever the one, making their road to recovery a long and rather difficult one. However, the California condor has been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to the help from the San Diego Zoo. Their recovery is one of the many success stories of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Ms. Reinbold and the Conservation Education Department work as ambassadors between conservation scientists and the community. They translate and interpret the very technical results of a study so that people of the community can understand them, much like an interpreter translates the language of one person into another so it can be better understood. Ms. Reinbold works in the lab with students from middle school all the way up to graduate school, teaching them about conservation through interesting lectures and exciting experiments. When InternQuest visited the lab, we looked at the DNA of condors. Through a process called gel electrophoresis, we split the DNA in samples and looked at them to determine the gender of the condor it was taken from. The process was very exact, but the stunning results were well worth the careful measures.

Conservation education is extremely important, says Mrs. Reinbold. Some people, especially those in proximity to a species of concern, don’t quite understand the importance of biodiversity. Biodiversity is the diversity of life and abundance of different species in the world. Each species does a specific job for the environment that they live in. Though it may seem like we could go on without some plants or animals, the products and services we get for free from nature would cost billions upon billions of dollars for humans to recreate. In order to conserve the natural world we live in, we must have a healthy respect for the natural world we live in. It cannot go on living without us and we surely cannot thrive without its help.

The California condors may not fly freely in the San Diego now, but they once did. The scientists are discovering ways we can help the giant birds and conservation educators will tell us the ways we can help. The condors initially suffered because of human interference, but now they are thriving with our help. One day, we might just be able to say we saw a condor soaring in the sky.

Libby, Real World Team
Week One, Winter Session 2014