A female California condor, part of the only known breeding pair, was in critical condition Saturday as staff members at San Diego Wild Animal Park battled to save the bird from a "lethal" dose of lead poisoning.
The bird, one of only 27 of the species still alive, was captured Friday at a ranch 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles and flown by helicopter to the park, where 10 other condors are in captivity.
"This is a very viable breeder . . . we have successfully hatched three eggs from her," said Tom Hanscom, spokesman for the park. "She was part of the only active breeding pair we know of. That's why it's so important to save her."
Tests of the ailing bird's blood taken by park veterinarians show that it has 4.2 parts per million of lead in its system. "That's a lethal level," Hanscom said.
The bird is being given medication and liquids to help it clear its system of lead, a process that's expected to continue for another week.
X-rays show that the bird has eight pieces of lead in various parts of its body. Seven of them are shotgun pellets, remnants of an old wound that are not considered the cause of the poisoning.
Instead, park veterinarians think the eighth piece, a fragment lodged in the bird's digestive tract, is what's causing the illness. It's likely, according to Hanscom, that the lead is from a bullet-riddled carcass the condor ate, rather than from a gunshot wound.
The condor, one of only five still in the wild, was tagged and outfitted with a radio-tracking device in 1984. It was recaptured in mid-November and given a blood test.
The test showed the condor had 1.5 parts per million of lead in its body, a level veterinarians didn't consider serious.
Its movements, however, were kept under close watch. By last week, the condor had become increasingly lethargic. Trappers moved in Friday and captured the bird, which was so sick that captors were able to walk up and pick it up.
Condors, with wingspans of about 10 feet, are the largest of all North American birds.