Saving the California condor with citizen science

By Orion McCarthy

THE YEAR WAS 1987, and the silence of the sweltering Southern California afternoon was broken only by a lone, distant caw. Then, the silhouette of a massive bird appeared, riding the warm updrafts of air over the parched landscape.

He descended low enough to make the vultures meandering about the underbrush look positively miniscule. Then with a graceful hop, he touched down next to his prize: a stinking, fly covered carcass.

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Who wouldn’t want to help conserve such a cute and cuddly face? Photo credit: Phoenix Zoo.

A member of the largest flying bird species in North America, Adult condor 9 was indeed a lonely bird. Affectionately known as AC-9 by researchers, he was one of only 22 living California Condors, and the only member of his species living outside of captivity in the world.

AC-9 advanced towards his putrid prize, his bald head glistening in the sun. Condors aren’t the cutest birds on earth, but they play a vital ecosystem role as scavengers by cleaning up decaying animals, a process that curbs the spread of disease and speeds decomposition. Their heads are featherless to prevent the growth of bacteria, giving them the look of an oddly endearing but overgrown vulture.

AC-9 positioned himself to dive in, but suddenly…

BANG!

A carefully disguised cannon discharged, rapidly propelling a net over the carcass as well as the unsuspecting condor. Several researchers popped out from behind the bushes to subdue the struggling bird before loading him into a truck bound for the San Diego Wild Animal Park.   The California condor had officially become extinct in the wild, its 22 living representatives all relegated to captivity.

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The skull of a California condor. California condors are the largest flying birds in North America, with wingspans of up to 10 feet (3 meters). Photo credit: Kai Schreiber.

Before the arrival of humans in the America’s 12,000 years ago, the California condor could be found across North America, from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. However, the extinction of mammoths and other large mammals at the end of the last ice age reduced the number of large carcasses, relegating condors to the southwestern corner of the continent. Millennia later, the westward expansion of American pioneers and the accompanying poaching and habitat loss put severe pressure on condor populations.

California condors are long lived but don’t breed until the age of six, and after that they only lay a single egg every other year. Their slow reproductive cycle makes the condor vulnerable to population decline, especially in the presence of human pressures. In the 20th century, chemicals such as DDT, collisions with power lines, and lead poisoning from bullets left in hunted animals stacked insurmountable odds against the California condor, whittling the entire population to a few dozen individuals in the 1980s.

The move to capture all remaining condors and breed them in captivity came in the 1980s in light of their crashing population numbers. It was a controversial measure to say the least. The risky strategy gambled on captured birds retaining their “wild” instincts while successfully breeding in captivity and cost a whopping $35 million dollars, a hefty sum considering the limited money available for conservation initiatives across the country. Some questioned if saving a single species was worth such a steep investment.

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The process of double clutching, where researchers hand rear a condor chick to encourage the parents to lay an additional egg. Here, a researcher uses a puppet to feed a baby condor. Photo credit: Ron Garrison, San Diego Zoo.

Thanks to cooperation and clever conservation, efforts to restore the California condor population have been largely successful. To quickly boost population numbers, researchers removed and hand reared eggs from captive birds, inducing them to lay multiple eggs, a process known as double clutching. While the real condor parents rear the second chick, researchers who use puppets to mimic adult condors rear the first!

To avoid death from interactions with humans, condor chicks were trained to avoid power lines, a significant source of wild condor mortality. Furthermore, lead poisoning from the ingestion of stray bullets in carrion accounts for 60% of wild condor fatalities, prompting legislation passed in 2008 that forbade the use of lead bullets throughout the condor’s range.  In protecting condors, lead exposure for other species sharing the same habitat decreased as well. Thus, the California condor may be considered an umbrella species, a species whose conservation provides spillover benefits to other species in their ecosystem.

Thanks to an accelerated reproduction rate and a newfound wariness of humans, California condors flourished in captivity. Select condors from the captive breeding program were reintroduced into the wild in 1991, and while they are still critically endangered, their population has since rebounded from 22 to 425 individuals, an increase of seventeen fold. While stray lead bullets, habitat fragmentation, and bioaccumulation of toxins still pose a threat to wild condors, population trends are still increasing, prompting an ambitious goal of reintroducing condors to the Pacific Northwest.

CACO-ReleaseSites

The approximate current range of the California condor. Preliminary plans to release condors in the Pacific Northwest are in the works. Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Conservation efforts to monitor condors and foster further population growth are still underway in the southwest as researchers monitor condor behavior using camera traps. Initiatives such as Condor Watch use crowdsourcing to help researchers sift through photos of condors feeding to identify abnormal behavior indicative of lead poisoning to help inform their conservation efforts.  Photos are screened by multiple users to maintain scientific accuracy, and the process saves researchers valuable time.

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An example camera trap image from Condor Watch, the research organization that uses crowdsourcing to help identify condors in photos.  Users are asked to tag condors and other birds in photos, just like tagging fiends on Facebook!  This saves researchers time and allows them to check for abnormal behavior among the birds, and possible signs of lead poisoning. Photo credit: Condor Watch.

What YOU can do

Participating in crowdsourcing research is an easy way to aid in conservation projects and can foster a connection with wildlife and a deeper appreciation for scientific research. Zooniverse, an online portal that sponsors Condor Watch, has a number of other exciting citizen science projects. Snapshot Serengeti allows the public to go on a virtual safari by sifting through pictures of the Tanzanian savanna and identify a variety of species based on a provided field guide, while Penguin Watch prompts volunteers to count penguin adults, chicks, and eggs at a variety of roosting sites.

Explore some of the projects to get a better idea of what the research is all about and why it is important for conservation, and then get involved!

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One comment

  1. […] to get involved. Initiatives such as Condor Watch and Snapshot Serengeti, hosted on the website Zooniverse, mimic online mini-games by prompting users to spot animals in a series of pictures so that […]

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