California Condor that has been marked
This is an article I wrote for a science writing class at Oregon State University a few years ago. Recently, New York Times published a piece on lead ammunition.
In 1805, as winter descended into the Lewis and Clark camps perched at the mouth of Columbia River, William Clark led a hunting party along the coast and into the spruce forest. When they returned to camp, among the deer and waterfowl they brought back was one enormous bird carcass. Sergeant Patrick Gass who spied the carcass among the hunting party’s spoils described it as a “remarkably large buzzard…nine feet across the wings”. Later the hunting party revealed to their comrades that the unknown bird had been spotted feeding on a whale carcass.
For thousands of years, a condor on the beach was a common sight for Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. For the Quileutes in the Olympic Peninsula, the thunderbird was a symbol of relief in a time of famine. The thunderbird, either directly representing or inspired by the condor, led people to whale carcasses on the beach, a boon to people who at times lived on the edge of starvation. Spotting these large birds circling a beach meant food on the table.
But, according to David Moen, who studies the condor’s history in the Pacific Northwest, even amongst the various Native American tribes, the thunderbird or condor can mean many things today. A dirty bird. A symbol of lightning and destruction. A connection to a culture. An enrichment to the ecosystem. Another lost species to reintroduce. Moen collected quotes from Native American tribes in Oregon, showing these varied attitudes:
“Many of our tribes in the Northwest view the Condor as sacred— it was a wide ranging bird called the Thunderbird here in Oregon. I heard Chief Wallulatum say to a group once that Condors are ‘second to the Eagle’ in importance and carry our messages to the Creator.”
-Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs member
“We laughed at those old buzzards. They are lowly because they eat dead things and it is undesirable. Their role is important as far as that goes for the environment, but they smell bad because of what they ate and that was a sign for our people ‘steer clear’ of them.”
Clearly, the condor evokes mixed feelings.
For many Oregonians, it’s easy to associate the near-extinct California Condor with the state of California and nowhere else. But, more and more, the California Condor is becoming a larger figure in Oregon politics, cultural history, and ecology. For, as the condor starts to take hold in the Southwest, U.S. Fisheries & Wildlife is looking to re-introduce the bird in the Pacific Northwest.
The California Condor is unlike any other bird in North America. In short, it is the largest. Its wingspan can reach up to 10 feet, 50 percent larger than the next largest bird, the Bald Eagle, whose wingspan tops out at 7 1/2 feet. Its head is naked to protect itself from pathogens attaching themselves to its feathers as it feeds on carcasses. For many people, this bird like no other might look like one large ugly bird.
But what makes it unique can also be an advantage. According to conservationists Noel and Helen Snyder, its large size makes it perfectly adapted for eating carrion. Its large size helps it muscle out other species that fight over carcasses. Being large makes it easier to soar faster and for longer distances to find food. And being large means it can metabolize slowly and wait longer between the rare feeding sessions – an important adaptation when large carcasses are few and far between.
So, what does the California Condor mean to an ecosystem? Like all the other decomposers in an ecosystem, the fungi, the scavengers, the bacteria, and others, the condor recycles nutrients that other actors in the ecosystem won’t touch. Since its numbers have dwindled in the past few centuries, it’s debatable whether its role as a decomposer is important.
And yet, they do the dirty work, consuming the decaying or diseased food in an ecosystem and breaking it down into the nutrients to be sent back into the food cycle.
It’s a big garbage disposal with wings. And, for some, its homely appearance is a true sign of character. Condor enthusiasts point to its long glossy black feathers for long soaring flights and its soft ruff of black neck feathers that form a delicate frame for the steely glance from its orange-yellow face as elements of its unique beauty.
So, what happened to the California Condor? Once spread along both coasts of North America, the condor numbers began to precipitously drop in the 1800s. Naturalists began to document its decline, and moreover, eulogize it by naming it the California Condor, evoking the romantic and dwindling wilderness of the west.
And yet, the condor was being poisoned and shot down by European settlers , some of which sought to preserve it.
And by giving it the name of the California Condor, according to Peter Alagona, a historian at UCLA, naturalists gave the bird a new identity to differentiate it from its more common and seemingly dirtier relatives, the Turkey Vulture, and tie it to its closest relative, the Andean Condor.
In Algona’s 2004 article in the Journal of History of Biology, he describes the goal: “The condor’s boosters sought to create a direct link in people’s imaginations between condors – with their tremendous size and archaic appearance – and an ancient, unspoiled North American continent.”
This was the first in many steps in molding the modern cultural identity of the California Condor, accurate or not.
Fast forward a century or so. As numbers dipped in the 1980s to a mere 27 individuals in the wild, extinction became imminent. In 1984, a working draft of the California Condor Recovery Plan was signed by the U.S. Fisheries & Wildlife Chief. And a controversial decision was made. The last few birds in the wild would be collected to save the species. A captive breeding program was started in 1988 at the San Diego Zoo. And in 1990, the California Condor Recovery Program began releasing birds back into the wild.
But as the birds were released, problems surfaced. Were they the same birds after captivity? Captive-bred juvenile birds, the next generation after the original breeding pairs were established, didn’t behave like their parents in the wild. One anecdote passed around the wildlife biologist water cooler went as follows: Like errant teenagers, a group of young birds broke into a mountainside cabin and ripped the mattress stuffing out of the beds. And other similar anecdotes followed: The birds were flying into power lines. The birds were entering human communities and drinking antifreeze.
John Nielsen’s book Condor: To the Brink and Back — The Life and Times of One Giant Bird, details the problem. Simply put, the birds were not motivated to eat and procreate. Given carcasses to eat, and being too young to find a cave and settle down, they found trouble instead.
One by one, the biologists found solutions for most of the problems. The birds were taught to stay away from power lines. A lead bird, older than the rest, was released with the juveniles to act as a mentor. Birds were raised with a healthy aversion to humans and, in theory, their toxins.
But one problem wouldn’t go away: lead. In the late-1990s, fresh off the success of working through the behavioral problems, biologists took a deep breath as the slowly reproducing birds were reaching a relatively large number of 160 individuals in the wild.
But lead, one of the original impetuses to the near-extinction of the California Condor, needed an answer. Condors often feed on the carcasses left behind by hunters. Lead is a major component of ammunition. And it is less costly than other ammunition component options.
So what makes condors so vulnerable to lead? According to a study by Cade published in 2007 in the Journal of Wildlife Management, lead poses a serious threat to condors.
And according to a study by Finkelstein, et. al., published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, “In wildlife, as with humans, morbidity and mortality from lead poisoning is associated with an individual’s lead exposure history.”
In short, condors tend to eat from carcasses with lead on a more frequent basis. And they are more likely to die from it. And the argument was made that humans who eat from kills brought down by lead can suffer the same consequences.
Lead is a toxin that cannot be flushed by the liver. It kills slowly, attacking the nervous system, affecting the bird’s ability to reproduce and flee predators like eagles and coyotes. Eventually, the central nervous system shuts down and the bird dies. And in the late-1990s, lead became the one problem that had no solution.
So, lead ammunition was banned in the condor’s range in California in 2008. And in Arizona and Utah, lead usage was decreased with the states providing hunters with copper bullets using state lottery money and other state funds.
Where does the ban on lead stand now? In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency denied a petition to ban lead ammunition nationwide. On President Barack Obama’s last day in office, a ban on lead on federal lands was proposed. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dropped the ban on his first day. So, lead ammunition will continue for now being banned or discouraged on a state-by-state basis*.
So, what does that mean for Oregon? Jesse D’Elia, U.S. Fisheries & Wildlife Service Endangered Species Recovery Chief in the Pacific Regional Office, says that a unique tactic towards lead will need to be taken in Oregon before the condor can be reintroduced.
Banning lead in Oregon would present “quite a struggle”, D’Elia states, given the vested interest in current beliefs about ammunition usage in Oregon. Some believe that a ban on lead is a slippery slope toward gun control.
And the cost difference between lead-based ammunition and ammunition with other components, as reported in the Albany Democrat-Herald, mean the difference between $20 and $30 per 50-round pack of ammunition.
But in any case, D’Elia says, the condor’s release in Oregon is a few years away. A number of projects are in the works in Oregon. The latest version of the California Condor Recovery Plan addresses the crisis mode that existed in 1994 and needs updating. Habitats in Oregon need to be scouted as possible sites for the reintroduced birds, a project the Oregon Zoo has taken on.
Moreover, U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife is conducting studies on the genetic history of the bird. Condors that were shot in Oregon in the 19th Century, taxidermied and sent to European museums to sit on display are coming home, in a way. DNA from birds collected in the 1800s in Oregon is being compared to the DNA of birds from California. Samples from their feathers are used to determine whether the condor had a unique genetic population in Oregon. It’s unknown whether the birds that the Native Americans, Lewis and Clark saw were merely stopping by in Oregon on their migratory path, or whether they were here year-round. If it’s the latter, it’s another feather in the cap for those who would like to see a new population of the California Condor in Oregon.
And archaeological digs are being conducted. A 7,000 year old condor tarsus, an ankle bone, was found in The Dalles area. It’s currently being analyzed to determine whether it’s an extinct subspecies of the California Condor or another species of condor altogether. But, D’Elia says, a cursory glance at the specimen reveals that this is a larger tarsus than a modern day condor’s tarsus. Either way, it’s evidence that the condor has a place in Oregon history.
Meanwhile, Oregon Zoo’s Clackamas County facility continues on as one of the four captive breeding programs in the U.S. In 2004, the zoo celebrated its first chick hatched in Oregon. With its six breeding pairs, the Oregon Zoo provides juveniles to be released into the wild in the Southwest. And soon, they could be released closer to home.
In 2001, an Oregonian editorial heralded the condor’s return to Oregon, if only as a captured prisoner of the breeding program, and announced its desire to bring back the “nine-foot soaring wonder to the Columbia River Gorge cliffs it once called home.”
So, what is the California Condor? A symbol of wilderness lost? Another dirty buzzard? A waste of taxpayer money? A rationalization along the slippery slope toward an outright gun ban? A living fossil? A mythological beast? A canary in the coal mine of environmental toxins? Or, an animal that has a rightful place in Oregon ecology?
Regardless, re-introducing the California Condor in Oregon will require a reckoning of all those identities, false or otherwise.