The once-nearly-extinct California Condor is North America's largest bird. It's recovery, however, is still threatened by humans. (Photo : Wikimedia Commons)
The California Condor has been on the brink of extinction before, and although its numbers have been steadily increasing and conservation efforts have been fairly successful, a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week has some bad news. It seems that California Condors are experiencing lead poisoning of "epidemic" proportions.
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California Condors are North America's largest birds, and feed mainly on carrion, or previously dead animals. Hunters or poachers sometimes use lead bullets or bullets with traces of lead. When a Condor feeds on an animal shot by one of these bullets, it ingests the bullet and lead along with it.
The problem poses a threat to Condor recovery.
"We will never have a self-sustaining wild condor population if we don't solve this problem," Myra Finkelstein, study co-author and a research toxicologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement. "Currently, California condors are tagged and monitored, trapped twice a year for blood tests, and when necessary treated for lead poisoning in veterinary hospitals, and they still die from lead poisoning on a regular basis."
In fact, the threat is so severe that the California Condor population could hit the same low it reached thirty years ago - only 22.
The researchers looked at 150 Condors between 1997 and 2010 and found that a startling number of them had lead poisoning.
"The levels of lead are completely mind-boggling," Donald Smith, another study co-author and an environmental toxicologist at UC Santa Cruz, told the Los Angeles Times. "Usually, in people, if we see an incidence of 1% we call it an epidemic - and this is 20%."
California Condors are regularly tested for lead poisoning and when it is present, they are treated at the Los Angeles Zoo with chelation therapy. Chelation therapy is also used for lead poisoning in small children.
The study only covered birds in the state of California, where conservationists put their numbers at around 400, and doesn't cover Condors in Arizona or Baja California.