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Condors and Lead

Condor #318 on his nest at Pinnacles National Park. Photo by Gavin Emmons
Figure 1. Condor #318 on his nest at Pinnacles National Park. Photo by Gavin Emmons
Lead object found in condor #318, confirmed to be .22 caliber bullet.
Figure 2. Lead object found in condor #318, confirmed to be .22 caliber bullet.
.22 caliber lead bullet recovered from condor #318. Photo by Zeka Kuspa
Figure 3. .22 caliber lead bullet recovered from condor #318. Photo by Zeka Kuspa

Ventana Wildlife Society believes that hunters and ranchers have a strong tradition of wildlife conservation ethics. We promote the use of non-lead ammunition because of the effect of lead on California Condors and other wildlife.

How does lead poisoning happen in condors and other scavenging birds anyway? Scavengers eat many different types of animals, some of which are shot with lead projectiles. Animals either left behind in the field, such as ground squirrels and coyotes, or animals shot and unable to be recovered, contain lead fragments left behind in the shot animal. Animals shot with shotgun pellets are also available to scavengers as well as waterfowl depending on where the shooting takes place. Condors and other wildlife often ingest large chunks of flesh and sometimes bone and cannot distinguish between a tiny lead fragment from a bullet versus a pebble for example. Once ingested, the digestive system interacts with the lead bullet which leaches the lead into the bloodstream of the animal that ingested it. Lead in blood rises dramatically after ingestion of a lead object and within days the animals feels the effects. Lead poisoning is an awful way to die because it paralyzes the digestive system often killing the animal slowly through starvation. If any of this is new to you or you are skeptical, please do your own research and start by reviewing the links, video, etc. at the bottom of this page.

The literature linking lead poisoning in condors to lead from spent ammunition is strong. In fact, we have contributed some of it. But what really convinces us is the direct evidence we have seen during our 15 years of managing the central California Condor population. As a recent example, a 10 year-old male condor (#318, Figure 1) died in November 2012 after ingesting a lead .22 caliber bullet, presumably while feeding on a carcass. The bird was found in San Benito County barely alive and unable to feed or use its legs to stand. Despite valiant efforts, veterinarians could not save him. Cause of death, through necropsy, was determined to be lead toxicosis. A radiograph showed multiple metal fragments and a bullet-shaped object in the digestive tract (Figure 2). The object was removed and determined to be a .22 caliber lead bullet (Figure 3).

The death of condor #318 is a huge loss for the central California population. This bird was a breeding male, the first at Pinnacles National Park in more than 100 years. With only a few breeding pairs established in the region, his loss leaves a void which might not be quickly filled. His surviving mate has left the breeding territory, and it is not clear if and when she will pair with another condor and breed again. The loss of even a small number of breeding pairs, and the offspring they produce, puts the entire population at risk.

We thank the many hunters who participated in our free non-lead ammunition program. We raised more than $50,000 in 2012 to support local hunters making the switch through this program, and we hope to raise more funds to continue in 2013. We greatly appreciate the 221 hunters who completed our online survey. For a summary report of the 2012 free non-lead ammunition program, including results of the survey, click here.


Frequently Asked Questions about condors

View the trailer of Scavenger Hunt, a documentary film about condors and lead

Selected Literature on the Effects of Lead on Condors and Other Wildlife

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Watch Condors and Lead on PBS. See more from Oregon Field Guide.