Days of the Condor
by Stephanie Coffey
The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens has housed California condors since 1967, when the now legendary Topa-topa came to the Zoo as a malnourished fledgling rescued from the wild. In 1981, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Fish and Game Commission agreed to a captive breeding program for the species, which had dwindled to just 22 individuals. The following year, the L.A. Zoo received its first fledgling since Topa-topa, marking the launch of the California Condor Recovery Program (CCRP). Over the years, the Zoo’s role in this collaborative program has evolved from a focus on building a captive breeding population to one of monitoring and maintaining the populations of wild birds that have been re-established in California. On October 11, 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill (A.B. 711) that will mandate the phasing out of lead ammunition by 2019—a landmark decision that may dramatically change the future for these remarkable birds.
One of the biggest challenges facing condors is lead. Condor habitat includes both wilderness areas/federally owned lands such as national forests and refuges and privately owned ranchlands. As scavengers, condors frequently feed on the remains of animals (wild and domestic) that have been killed with lead ammunition, which the birds accidentally consume. During a two-month period last fall, Zoo veterinarians treated 24 California condors for lead poisoning. The extent of the poisoning varied from non-symptomatic individuals to near-lethal toxicity.
Most birds undergo chelation treatments, which are injections of medications that bind heavy metals so that they can be eliminated from the body. For five consecutive days these birds must be given the injections. On the fifth day their blood is tested for lead. If harmful amounts are still detected, the whole process begins again after a two-day rest period for the bird. On any given day the Zoo staff could be catching and treating up to 15 condors, which is by no means an easy task—the birds are powerful and can have wingspans of more than nine feet.
Passage of A.B. 711 makes California the first and only state thus far to implement a statewide lead ammunition ban. Conservationists and environmentalists are excited and hopeful that the change will help bolster the wild condor population. However, not everyone shares the same view, and the bill will be reviewed once again in 2019. An important part of helping change attitudes about the new legislation is outreach and education. Most of the agencies that participate in the CCRP are working toward this end, and the Zoo last year enlisted the aid of a charismatic new ally in these efforts: a California condor named Dolly, who has been appointed the first outreach ambassador for her species.
Dolly hatched in Pinnacles National Park from an egg previously laid at the Oregon Zoo condor facility and transferred to the wild by L.A. Zoo staff. She was raised by the wild parents, and developed normally until just after her four-month check-up, when the team noticed that she was not using her right wing. Radiographs confirmed that she had suffered a fracture. Zoo veterinarian Dr. Stephen Klause performed two surgeries to repair the damage, however, due to the location of the injury, it was determined that Dolly would never be able to fly. This put the staff in a difficult situation. Clearly, she could not return to the wild. But it would be almost as difficult to integrate her into a captive breeding group. If she climbed too high on the perching provided, she might try to fly down, further injuring herself. Also, condors can sometimes be aggressive in their social interactions and she would not be able to escape. So Dolly’s fate was decided. She is a compelling ambassador, drawing people in with her regal presence and crafty demeanor, but it’s a dynamic role that requires constant attention and reinforcement. In the process, staff who work with her are gaining valuable insights about Dolly, and about her species.
“California condors are very behaviorally complex,” Condor Keeper Mike Clark explains. “They are quite gregarious and social, living in groups and socializing regularly with each other in a natural setting. Likewise, Dolly requires daily socialization with her keepers to keep her mentally healthy and fulfilled. A lot of daily behavioral shaping has been required by the condor staff to get Dolly into a manageable condition. The training is ongoing, and as she matures, it will be very challenging to maintain it. Condors are competitive, often aggressive, and athletic animals. Since this has never been done before, we are learning a lot, and the insight we are gaining is opening many new understandings and translations of condor behavior in wild birds.”
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Zooscape, the member newsletter of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.