For the Birds Radio Program: Get the Lead Out for Condors

Original Air Date: Jan. 16, 2003

California Condors are still dying of lead poisoning, even though it would be straightforward to start protecting wildlife from this scourge.

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For decades, people have struggled to keep one of the most endangered birds in the world, the California Condor, from the abyss of extinction. In the late 1980s, the species reached a crisis point. Several birds were missing, presumed dead, never to be recovered. Four were taken into captivity for examination, all emaciated and suffering from extraordinarily high levels of lead in their blood—only one survived. So at that point every one of the nine birds remaining in the wild was captured. They had high lead levels, too, but were caught in time so that treatment was effective. By then, scientists had worked out several strategies for captive breeding, and as the birds recovered from lead poisoning, they quickly adapted to a protected life.

But condors belong in the wild. And so beginning in 1995, some birds have been released in California and in the Grand Canyon area. But unfortunately, although the birds’ blood had been cleaned up, the environment hadn’t. So in the past seven years, at least five more condors have died from lead poisoning. In addition, at least thirty condors have been treated for lead poisoning, and lead fragments have been discovered in eight of these treated birds. Many more condors have simply disappeared and were never found, at least some almost certainly because of lead poisoning.

Meanwhile, high lead levels are still being found in loons and Bald Eagles. Eagles and condors pick up lead when scavenging on dead animals that have lead shot or bullets embedded in their carcasses. Loons usually get their lead primarily from lead sinkers.

Despite this, hunting with lead bullets is practiced widely throughout the United States, and lead shot is still legal for use away from wetlands. No Federal or State government has made a significant move to reduce the environmental consequences of hunting with lead bullets or fishing with lead sinkers.

Condors, eagles, and loons have something besides lead in common. All three species raise only one or two young a year, and the babies take several years to reach maturity. That means their population has trouble recovering from losses. Scientists believe that with the continued threat of lead in the environment, many populations of eagles and loons may be threatened and a stable population of California condors will never be attainable.

People have known how dangerous lead is for a long time now. We’ve gone a long way since I was a child in getting lead out of gasoline and out of our water pipes. It seems like a no-brainer that even though we can’t take back all the tons of lead that have rained on the environment over the centuries, we should at least stop putting more in. Much of the conservation movement started with hunters and fishermen. But right now even the most conscientious and informed among them have trouble finding lead free bullets and non-lead sinkers. There are so many things making this world a hard place for birds to survive in. This is just one tiny issue, but with enormous ramifications for three worthy birds. Let’s work together to get the lead out.