In Depth

Saving the Condor

KQED-TV Probes the Deaths of Continent’s Largest Flying Birds

When the number of California condors in the wild dropped to 21 or 22 in the late 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in. Loss of habitat, along with the condors’ habit of eating the carcasses of poisoned pest animals and ingesting lead bullets left in game animals, had decimated the population of the continent’s largest flying bird.

Scientists caught those birds and implemented a controversial captive breeding program, primarily in the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos. The return of the California condor through that breeding program and its subsequent reintroduction to the wild has been closely watched for 20 years, and the federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars to bring the bird back from the brink of extinction.

So when condors reintroduced to the wild started dying off again, Paul Rogers and his production team at KQED, the PBS and NPR station in San Francisco, wanted to find out why. The result, “Quest: Condors vs. Lead Bullets,” is one of three finalists for the SEJ’s outstanding story, television category.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the California condor can weigh up to 25 pounds and stand 45 to 55 inches tall, with a wingspan of 9.5 feet. The highly intelligent, very social birds are believed to live about 40 years in the wild.

Habitat Loss

“In the old days, they were hunted,” Mr. Rogers said. “People used condor feathers to make fancy hats for women. And then there was habitat loss. Because it flies so far—it can do 150 miles in a day—it requires a fairly large habitat.

“The breeding program was so successful that by 2000 there were about 300 in zoos and 100 that had already been released back into the wild.”

The birds were released in Baja, Mexico; in Arizona at the Grand Canyon; and in Ventura County and at Big Sur and other California locations. But over the next few years, scientists started noticing some of the same problems they thought had been eliminated by the captive breeding program.

“The birds were behaving in strange ways,” Mr. Rogers said. “When they captured and X-rayed these birds, they found lead fragments in their bodies.

“The same way lead paint affects children, it affects animals in the wild.”

When scientists tested the condors, he said, “They found the same chemical signature in the birds that’s sold in sports stores for bullets.”

Hunters shoot wild animals and leave the carcasses, he said, and the condors, which are scavengers, come down to eat those animals.

Mr. Rogers and his production team at “Quest,” which included Chris Bauer, Sheraz Sadiq, Shirley Gutierrez and Josh Rosen, went to the Ventura Wilderness Society in Big Sur, “where they take condors and radio-tag and release them in the hills of Big Sur.”

Among other conservationists, the “Quest” crew met with hunters who were trying to educate other hunters about the lead bullet problem and a Native American leader who spoke about the cultural significance of the condor.

Bill Passed

They also interviewed California Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), who authored a bill to ban the use of lead ammunition by hunters within the condor range. After “Condors vs. Lead Bullets” aired, that bill was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“A lot of people hunt, and a lot of people eat what they hunt,” Mr. Rogers said, adding that he “had no intention of making an anti-hunting piece.”

“Most hunters want to do the right thing,” he said, “and don’t want to drive the largest bird in North America into extinction.”

Lead shot has been banned for years for duck hunting, Mr. Rogers said, “but copper bullets cost more and don’t always fly as well. Hunters are now encouraged to bury the organs containing the bullets to prevent scavengers from eating them from the carcasses.”

“Quest” is a multimedia program on KQED-TV, a half-hour weekly science and environmental program. The show, funded by the National Science Foundation and a number of Bay Area foundations, also has a Web site with educational components including teachers’ guides, along with downloadable, interactive Web content “so people can go on science and environmental hikes.”