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New research helping San Diego Zoo's effort to save the California condor

California condor
Posted at 5:27 PM, Jul 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-11 18:49:45-04

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (KGTV) — The successful effort to save the California condor is using new research to better understand how to help the critically endangered bird thrive in the wild. The new study was released by members of the team working on the condor project, including the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, the Los Angeles Zoo, and San Diego State University.

“I think it’s just such an amazing conservation success story," said Rachel Felton, a co-author of the study who works for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

At one time, the California condor was near extinction, with just 22 birds left alive. Their numbers had plummeted due to contamination from lead and chemicals, most notably DDT, which is found in the marine mammals on which the condors scavenge. The Zoo began its effort to save the species in the 1980's, breeding, hatching, and releasing birds. The population is rebounding. There are now more than 530 living California condors, with more than half in the wild. “I just think it’s amazing to see them flying over the ocean and Big Sur. It’s one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen," Felton said.

To supplement the numbers of birds naturally reproducing in the wild, condors are still being bred at the Safari Park, raised for about 18 months, then released into the wild at three sites in California, one in Arizona, and one in Baja Mexico. Every year, each wild condor is captured for a blood test. The new research from those tests shows that the condors living along the California coast are still dealing with dangerous levels of contamination. Blood samples showed the presence of lead, which can be fatal, and the chemical DDT, which, can cause the eggs the condor lays to have unusually thin shells, which makes them susceptible to accidental destruction, slowing the growth of the species.

But while the condors on the California coast are still struggling with contamination, the new study reports that the birds in Baja Mexico, which live inland in the mountain region, have far fewer contaminants in their blood. “Birds are healthy. They’re reproducing and at some point, that population is going to grow to where it’s going to need to expand," says Zoo researcher Christopher Tubbs.

In addition to using the research to recommend more releases in Mexico, the team also examined new areas where the condors can expand their home range. They found that there is an ample supply of marine mammal carcasses along Baja's coast, and that those mammals are less polluted than the ones along California's coast. The conservation team hopes to begin using techniques to encourage wild condors to explore beyond the mountains to Baja's coastal region, which would be a major step forward for the reintroduction effort.

“It’s called adaptive management. It really helps you pinpoint and move the gauges of how, what you have to do to keep increasing the species," said Nacho Vilchis, who oversees the condor releases in Mexico.

Team members are optimistic that it will not be too far into the future that the California condor will no longer need human intervention to exist in the wild.