For the Birds Radio Program: Death of a Condor
On the day before Valentine’s Day this year, a California Condor was found dead in southern Kern County in California. The bird wore a band on its leg so it was a straightforward matter to identify her. She was AC-8, the last surviving California Condor that had been hatched in the wild. In the mid 80s, every single California Condor in the wild that was examined was suffering from high lead levels, and several died from lead poisoning, which the population simply couldn’t recover from. So in 1986, every bird in the wild was captured. Veterinary medicine and a captive breeding program brought the species back from the edge of extinction AC-8 produced 12 babies in captivity, and then in April, 2000, she was the first condor returned to the wild, bringing the restoration program full circle. Until she died, there were 80 condors in the wild, and there are 118 in the captive program at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos.
Veterinarians did a necropsy on AC-8, and found she’d been shot to death. The California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are working to find the person or persons responsible for killing this important bird.
I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach thinking about the tragedy. Even more than sadness, though, I feel anger. How could anyone shoot a condor? Was the shooter ignorant or willful? Did he do it because the bird made an intriguing target, because he bore some grudge against the endangered species act, or what? It’s easy to be wrapped up in sadness about the individual bird—a magnificent creature, and a significant and necessary part of a seriously endangered species. But the loss was not only an avian one—it was a huge human loss, as well. People have invested millions of dollars, mostly by individual donations, in this attempt to save the species. They’ve invested even more in time, expertise, medicine, and equipment. But beyond this, the people working as part of this program have given their hearts and souls to the project. The people who trapped the last wild individuals in 1986 by hiding out in hot, stinking pits under putrid carcasses for 12 hours a day did that for love. The people who painstakingly administered the medications for lead poisoning and nursed the birds back to health, the people who designed the condor puppets used to hand feed many of the captive chicks, the people who cleaned out the pens and fed the birds and helped bring them to full flight before release—all these people did their work for love.
Every one of the 197 condors still in existence today is a product of captive breeding. AC-8 was the last wild condor. The species would now be extinct if not for the captive program. Some people were absolutely opposed to the captive program back in the 80s, saying the species should be allowed to die with dignity. But somehow a rotting carcass of a bird that was shot to death is not a dignified way to go. I was personally opposed to bringing every single bird into captivity, but as it turned out, I was wrong. Every single one of them was suffering from lead levels. If they’d left some in the wild, those birds would have died quickly. Even AC-8 had a new lease on life in her 14 years in captivity—she was obviously comfortable and satisfied enough to breed, something virtually no birds except domesticated chickens do under stress. I hope that up until the end, her final three years as a wild bird were filled with beauty and joy. And I sure hope they catch whoever killed her.