Soaring thousands of feet above the sandstone cliffs and spires of the desert, California Condors look for their next feeding opportunity. For these prehistoric birds, however, the next meal could be their last.
The California Condor is North America’s largest bird, with a wingspan of 10 feet. In the 1980s, mostly due to lead poisoning from ammunition, the bird's numbers dwindled to 22 in the world. But thanks to partnerships with advocacy groups and government agencies, they are starting to come back.
“If we can get them over this lead toxicity issue they can fit in very well in open undeveloped areas in state like Utah, Nevada and California," said Keith Day, a wildlife biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "So you can conserve a species and at the same time provide a wildlife viewing opportunity.”
The condors do not start reproducing until they are about six years old and only have one chick every other year, Day said, so even one lead bullet found in a carcass where birds are feeding can be detrimental to the flock.
Utah and Arizona share an 88 bird flock that can fly up to Flaming Gorge in northeast Utah and down to Mexico. Both states have started programs to provide hunters with non-lead ammunition in order to protect the birds without banning hunters.
“It’s not that the hunters aren’t aware or aren’t helping, it’s that there is still lead in the environment," Day said. "The big game hunters — the ones we focus on — they’re not the only source of lead in the environment. We are working hard to get the message out there and we are getting a lot of support.”
The division has partnered with the Peregrine Fund, a non profit that breeds and raises condors to release into the flock. Day said this partnership has supplemented the population well, but it will still be a long time until the birds can sustain themselves.